As more students use community colleges as a gateway to a four-year education, administrators in California are considering a problem that has vexed educators in the state for years: How can one college have such a strong track record of student transfer, while institutions in the same system — sometimes in the same county — routinely struggle to help students matriculate to a university program?
Just how big a disparity are we talking about here? The Los Angeles Times reports that 19 California community colleges accounted for half of the 13,999 students who transferred into the UC system in 2013, while 93 colleges accounted for the other half.
That’s a significant difference. And while there may be an inclination to point fingers at lower-performing community colleges struggling to get transfer rates up, a new University of California Board of Regents initiative asks the system’s nine undergraduate institutions to share the responsibility — and to provide resources and promising practices intended to improve transfer rates at those community colleges that have struggled the most.
“The onus is on us in this report,” says Stephen Handel, associate vice president for undergraduate admissions for the UC system.
Widening the pool
Handel says four-year college administrators will connect with community college faculty members at the lowest-performing transfer colleges to better identify enrollment requirements, with the intent of putting more students on a solid path to a four-year education.
Handel, the author of a 2011 report that examined transfer rates at the state’s community colleges, is no stranger to the plight of the state’s two-year career and technical colleges, especially those that serve predominately low-income and minority students.
In interviews with 21 college leaders at 12 institutions across the state, Handel found messaging and relationship building to be key to transfer success. His findings mirror those of the UC Board of Regents.
“While we are very strong in reaching low-income students and students who are first in their family to come to college, we can do a better job in reaching out to traditionally underrepresented students — ethnic minority students including African-Americans, Chicano/Latino students and American Indians,” Handel says.
Another aim of the program is to ensure that preparation for transfer begins the moment students set foot on a community college campus. Waiting until the final semester to target students with recruitment messages is too late, Handel says. “The requirements to get into the university are very high, so students need to plan early.”
The university system is engaging faculty members to review admission requirements for its 20 most popular majors and will provide recommendations to make the criteria clearer for would-be transfer students.
“There are ways in which we can communicate more effectively exactly what students need to do in order to be competitive applicants,” Handel says. “What types of classes do students need to take? What kinds of GPAs do they need to earn?”
UC system president Janet Napolitano and other university leaders say they are serious about helping improve community college transfer rates. Starting next term, university system officials, including Napolitano, will visit community college campuses to meet presidents and other leaders.
“We want to use the authentic charisma of our president to galvanize interest on community college campuses across the state. So we’re going to send her on the road,” says Handel.
Do you have any suggestions for how two- and four-year colleges can work together to improve transfer rates? Tell us in the Comments.