In summary

California community college students often aim to transfer into a UC or a Cal State, but few actually make the jump — in part because of how complicated it is to do so. A proposed bill aims to make transfers easier — but faces fierce resistance from faculty, the UC and California community college leadership.

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Update: Gov. Gavin Newsom signed this bill into law Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021.

Here’s one you probably haven’t heard before: The Legislature is considering a plan to make it easier for California community college students to get into a UC or Cal State campus, but current community college students aren’t backing it.

The dust-up exposes the frustrating and convoluted process California community college students endure trying to transfer into the state’s public universities.

Fixing the transfer maze, as it’s sometimes called, is a holy grail in California higher education — doing so could reduce the students’ cost to get a bachelor’s degree and increase the state’s supply of workers with four-year degrees. Although most community college students have a goal of transferring, only 22% of those who began their studies in 2015-16 did so within three years

To critics of Assembly Bill 928, the goals of the proposed law are notable but the execution is wrong. Opponents include Gov. Gavin Newsom’s finance department, community college faculty groups, the chancellor’s office of the community college system and the UC Office of the President

The bill — which has cleared the Assembly and is now headed to the Senate floor — would:

  •  Have the UC and Cal State systems agree on a common set of general-education courses that community college students must take to get into either system. Currently, for instance, Cal States requires completed courses in ethnic studies and communications, but UC does not;
  • Require that community colleges place all students who plan to transfer — even if they want to attend UC or another college — into the existing guaranteed transfer path to get into a Cal State.

Crucially, the student senate of the community college system is withholding support for the bill unless it drops the requirement of a Cal State track for every student who wants to transfer anywhere. Community college faculty groups and the system’s chancellor’s office want this language gone, too. 

Students automatically placed on that Cal State-specific transfer route “may be at a serious disadvantage, which would require them to potentially take additional courses” at the community college if they later decide to transfer instead to a UC or a private college, the student senate wrote in a letter to bill author Assemblymember Marc Berman, a Democrat from Silicon Valley.

Berman, a major legislative thinker on higher-education transfer issues, said his staff is working with the student senate to address their concerns. He also noted that students would have the option to drop out of that placement.

And though current community college students are unsold on the bill, several prominent former California community college student leaders who transferred to a UC or Cal State campus support the bill, citing their success as a reason it should pass. The student associations of the UC and Cal State also back it. They say the transfer bill will simplify the transfer process and ensure more community students take the classes they need to enter a Cal State or UC.

“These are the students that have gone through the transfer process that know how broken it is,” said Berman.

Costs of transfer overhaul disputed

Newsom’s finance department agrees with all the points of opposition and cites the sticker shock, too: The bill, it wrote, may cost at least $133 million to consolidate UC and Cal State  transfer requirements, make IT system changes and cover additional counselors’ time. 

Those cost estimates seem “extraordinarily high to me,” Berman said.

The UC and Cal State systems may also see extra costs in the low millions. But the state could also save money in its state’s tuition-waiver program if the bill prevents students on financial aid from taking classes they don’t need, and transferring quicker.

So much of the transfer confusion boils down to the paucity of community college counselors who can explain early in a student’s academic tenure what a transfer to a UC or Cal State school requires. By the last count, the community college system employed one counselor for every 563 students on average in 2017. At some colleges, the figure was closer to 1,500 students per counselor.

A group of faculty for the three systems that opposes the transfer bill argues the state should instead increase the number of academic counselors at the community colleges. 

“The central message we wish to convey in this letter is that the transfer system is not broken; in fact, it works rather well,“ the letter said. 

That runs counter to a 2021 report that  identified numerous problems with the state’s transfer process.

A transfer guarantee that isn’t

The Cal State transfer pathway, created by the Legislature in 2010, has a lot of caveats that bely its promise of a “guarantee.”

For starters, the “associate degree for transfer” guarantees admissions into a Cal State, but not necessarily the Cal State of a student’s choice. That’s anathema to students who can’t move hundreds of miles away to the campus that accepted them because their jobs or families can’t go with them.

And 43% of  students transferring to a Cal State campus don’t even have an associate degree. 

Michael Schouten said the “associate degree for transfer” allowed him to get to a Cal State faster. A transfer student from Ventura College who’s about to start his first term in finance at Cal State Northridge, Schouten was one of the former California community college students who signed on in support of the bill. 

During Schouten’s first year of community college, a counselor put him on a general studies plan, which made him lose a year to wandering academically — largely because he missed taking business classes that also cleared his general-education requirements. Only after meeting with another counselor toward the end of his first year did he get on the transfer path. 

As a result, his academics were “on cruise control, and you just follow the plan,” he said. He transferred after two years to Cal State Northridge as a junior,  one of the perks of the “associate degree for transfer” that other options don’t ensure. 

Schouten calls himself lucky to be able to live at home in Ventura County and commute the roughly 40 miles each way to the campus he had his heart set on initially. But he kept a backup plan. 

Knowing that not everyone gets into a Cal State of their choice, Schouten, true to his major, created a spreadsheet of likely costs he’d incur under two scenarios: one as a transfer student who commuted to a nearby Cal State and another as a student having to pay for housing at a Cal State far away, such as Sacramento State. Taking into account his financial aid and rental prices in Sacramento, he anticipated needing to borrow between $6,000 and $7,000 a year for the two years he’d be at Sacramento State.

“Definitely I was prepared to do that” if it meant getting a Cal State degree, Schouten said.

At the Cal State system, 63,000 qualified transfer students were denied admissions to their Cal State of choice in the five years leading up to 2020 because those campuses were full.

But the UC and Cal State systems are struggling to enroll more undergraduates, including students coming in straight from high school. Until both systems increase capacity, “we’re going to end up with a lot of students on a road to nowhere,” said Dolores M. Davison, president of the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges, during a public meeting in August.

At the Cal State system, 63,000 qualified transfer students were denied admissions to their Cal State of choice in the five years leading up to 2020 because those campuses were full, said a report by the Public Policy Institute of California. Owing to their size and mission, the Cal States enroll three times as many transfer students as does the UC.

The Legislature has vowed to increase the number of annual available seats by at least 15,000 at both systems for California residents starting in 2022-23

Paths to the UC and CSU are different

The “associate degree for transfer” is a guarantee into a Cal State school, but not a UC. Because each system has its own requirements for transfers, opponents of the bill say placing students on the Cal State pathway interferes with a student’s plans to get into a UC. Six UC campuses have their own campus-specific guaranteed transfer programs and the system has another transfer path that falls short of an admissions guarantee.

As for creating a single set of general education classes that both Cal State and UC accept? Backers say it would reduce student confusion. Opponents warn it could trigger a surge in sign-ups for required classes and a drop for those not required — leading to personnel shifts that are headaches for academic departments at community colleges. 

Tariq Azim, a UC Davis student who transferred from Chaffey College, a community college in San Bernardino County, still endorses the common set of courses. He notes that California high school students take a common set of courses to meet the minimum qualifications of getting into either the UC or Cal State.

 “Why at this time do you still not have that for transfer students?” asked Azim.

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Mikhail Zinshteyn has been a higher education reporter since 2015. As a freelancer, he contributed to The Atlantic, The Hechinger Report, Inside Higher Ed and The 74. Previously, he was a reporter at EdSource...