photograph of trees lining a pathway

This post reflects on his struggles and the ways convoluted higher ed processes can derail students trying to earn a degree. It also provides some general information about the public higher education system in California and tips for transferring. I hope this information will be helpful to many.

The Many Values of Community Colleges

The public higher education system in California is immense. And the complexities involved with moving between institutions are too.  In CA, there are 112 community colleges (CCCs) that serve more than 2 million students. On the four-year side, the California State University (CSU) system includes 23 campuses and the University of California (UC) has 10 institutions.

The CCC system enrolls 24% of the nation’s CC students. I’m an advocate and supporter of community colleges. In the 1960s, my father left his impoverished family of fifteen siblings on the east coast and became a resident of California to enroll at Porterville Community College, which was then free to CA residents. He then transferred to San Jose State University (part of the CSU system) and completed his Master’s degree and then moved to Iowa State to complete his Ph.D.  The opportunity provided to my father through California community college and the CA Master Plan for Higher Education improved his and my economic and social status. It also produced a healthy stream of educated workers in California, creating a fertile soil for transforming CA into a nexus of innovation. 

While CCCs are no longer free, they are still an incredible financial value. They provide the same lower division coursework that 4-year institutions provide and usually do so in a smaller class environment with instructors whose primary responsibility is to teach, as opposed to research. I plan to have my two boys attend a community college after high school. They are fully aware of this and they understand why.  My boys will spend two years at a CC to explore and figure out what they love to do (assuming they don’t figure it out before then). They will transfer to a 4-year institution and complete their undergraduate degree there.  I have also taught in the CCC system, as both a full-time and part-time faculty, for twelve years.

Our family plan will, of course, save my husband and I thousands of dollars too.  Student loan debt in the U.S. has now topped $1 trillion.  If a student completes a 4-year degree within 4 years in the CA public higher education system and the first two years of transferable, lower-division coursework is completed at a community college, the savings is roughly $10,000 if the student transfers and graduates from a CSU and more than $20,000 if the student moves on to a UC. 

That plan seems simple and worth it in many ways, doesn’t it? And many families/students follow it with success. Each year, according to the Community College League of California, roughly 60,000 students transfer from a community college in California to a CSU or UC. And 28% of UC graduates and 55% of CSU grads started their higher education journey at a CCC.

The Student Experience

As we consider this data and the critical role community colleges play in the college completion process, let’s also consider the student experience. My nephew is in the midst of transferring from a CCC to a CSU. He, and most college students, do not view their higher ed experience through a bird’s eye view of institutional organizations.  I know I didn’t when I was in college. It took me a long time before I even understood how CCCs, CSUs, and UCs were different and had the potential to function as an interconnected system.  Nonetheless, my nephew has learned that navigating the transfer process is no simple feat.  He completed some of his course work at one community college in CA and then moved to a nearby city and began attending a separate community college, where he completed his lower division coursework.  Both colleges are “feeder schools” for the 4-year institution to which he is transferring.  A counselor at the second college provided him with  list of courses he needed to complete to be ready to transfer.  He completed all of the courses on the list.  However, one of the courses, a math class, was completed at the first community college.  He learned late in the game that the university only accepts that math course from the second community college and not the first.  As a community college instructor, this did not surprise me.  But I certainly saw it through a new lens — and realized how this convoluted system messes with students’ lives and finances.

What did surprise me was the plan his counselor suggested he follow to remedy the problem.  The counselor suggested he enroll in an out-of-state university and complete the math course online. The online course from the out-of-state institution would articulate to his university of choice and he could then officially transfer.

He accepted the counselor’s suggestion, as it would not require him to travel hours to the nearest community college at which the math class is offered (with full articulation).  He could also pick up additional hours at work, while completing his class online.  So, now he is paying out-of-state tuition to complete a single online math class to enable him to transfer from a California Community College to a California State University.

This situation reveals how online classes can improve a student’s chances for succeeding with their educational goals.  It also reveals the tremendous need for CA’s CCCs to continue to be leaders in the online learning space, but also to create fully online lower division pathways for students with the ability to enroll easily in these classes, as opposed to needing to register at each individual college.  This plan is in motion and our students in California, as well as our state, will benefit from it greatly.

Next, I asked my nephew how the online class has been (as the semester was coming to a close).  “Rough,” he replied.  He shared that math is difficult for him and he has feels that he learns best in a face-to-face setting.  I asked him if the instructor was present in the online class.  He said, “No. In fact, when I emailed her for help, she gave me a phone number for a support center.” I asked him if he experienced interaction with his online peers in the class.  He said, “No.  I just read the book and completed assignments in a Pearson website.”

That’s unacceptable and demonstrates that, while he is completing the required course to be able to transfer, his learning is suffering due to a poor quality learning experience. How will this impact his success in his future math classes? How does this impact his confidence as a human and as a student? How does this reflect on the general attitudes about online learning? All of these questions, and more, are critical to the future of higher education and often get lost.

Transfer Tips

Research shows that 1 in 10 students who transfer from a CC lose credits because they are not transferable. This extends the duration of the degree, as the courses must be repeated, and wastes time and money (albeit, these courses may provide value in other ways!). If you know a student planning to transfer from a community college to a 4-year institution, here are some resources to help improve the experience.

  • If the institutions are located in CA, become acquainted with Assist.org. It provides up-to-date information about which courses at your CC transfer to the your 4-year institution of choice.  CaliforniaColleges.edu also provides a comprehensive set of resources to guide students from high school through the completion of a 4-year degree.
  • Create a mobile toolkit. More and more startups are forming around the goal of improving the student transfer process.  Transfer Bootcamp (founded by a former community college student) is designed to improve a student’s organization and awareness of the transfer process.  ImFirst is an app designed to support, guide and celebrate first generation college students through graduation.
  • Become familiar the Western Undergraduate Exchange (WUE) program if you live in a western state (Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, N. Dakota, Oregon, S. Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming). This program provides residents of these states an opportunity to apply for a significantly reduced out-of-state tuition rate.
  • Use the tools the counselors use. The site, CCC Transfer, is developed and used by counselors throughout the CCC system to assist students with the transfer process. It is packed with great resources!

Please share your own tips and experiences about transferring from a community college to a 4-year university in a comment.

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