Low college transfer rate dissected

President Obama has long been a champion of community colleges and he demonstrated that commitment Monday, when he traveled to Northern Virginia Community College to release his 2012-13 budget proposal, which calls for an $8 billion program to train students for jobs in high-demand industries.

One day later, the Civil Rights Project at UCLA released a series of reports warning that California’s economic future is threatened by abysmal transfer rates from community colleges to four-year colleges, especially for Latino and African American students. Those rates, according to the studies, are a direct result of extreme racial and economic segregation in high school.

“When you’re in 9th grade we can predict with high precision whether you’re going to be able to transfer from a community college, because of how far behind you’re going to be when you get to community college,” said Civil Rights Project co-director Patricia Gándara, who is co-author of Building Pathways to Transfer.

Transfer rates by level of high school resources. (Source:  Civil Rights Project, UCLA). Click to enlarge.
Transfer rates by level of high school resources. (Source: Civil Rights Project, UCLA). Click to enlarge.

Gándara and her team found that 30 percent of community college students who attended the lowest wealth high schools transferred to a four-year college, compared with more than 53 percent of students from high wealth high schools. The disparity is much larger when those numbers are broken down by race and ethnicity. Although nearly 75 percent of all Latino students and two-thirds of African American students who go on to higher education start at a community college, they comprised only 20 percent of all students who transferred to a four-year college or university.

At the other end, the authors write that “a handful of community colleges serving high percentages of white, Asian and middle class students are responsible for the majority of all transfers in the state.”

In a second report released by the Civil Rights Project, titled Unrealized Promises: Unequal Access, Affordability, and Excellence at Community Colleges in Southern California, the researchers found that the most segregated high schools with the fewest resources and weakest academic achievement tend to feed students into segregated community colleges, where many of them get stuck in years of remedial classes and never advance.

“Unfortunately, the community colleges tend to repeat the patterns of the low performing high schools, resulting in few transfers; this makes a mockery of the promise of equal opportunity,” said Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project.

Transfer rates from community college to four-year college, by race and ethnicity.  (Source:  Civil Rights Project, UCLA). Click to enlarge.
Transfer rates from community college to four-year college, by race and ethnicity. (Source: Civil Rights Project, UCLA). Click to enlarge.

Student Success Task Force not enough

In California, community colleges are the backbone of the higher education system, serving more than two-and-a-half million students a year who have diverse needs and goals. Some are seeking an associate’s degree, some a certificate in a skilled profession such as nursing or welding, and others hope to transfer to a four-year college to earn a bachelor’s degree. The 1960 California Master Plan for Higher Education includes all those choices and more.

After half a century it became clear that the plan for community colleges needed revising. So last year, the Student Success Task Force on community colleges, established by the Legislature, developed a set of 22 recommendations to improve and accelerate the time it takes for students to earn credentials, earn degrees, or transfer.

Orfield wasn’t critical of the report – “I’m not belittling it,” he assured – but he was unenthusiastic, saying the recommendations tend to tweak around the edges of a problem that needs a full-scale structural reform.  “It wasn’t a call for saying let’s redo the structure of higher education in California because it’s a catastrophe. It means that most of the kids who are growing up in this state aren’t going to have a reasonable chance to get what they need to be middle class families; that’s just absolutely critical to the future of California.”

Even colleges singled out in the Building Pathways to Transfer report for having a disproportionately high rate of transfers didn’t do it by making institutional changes.  It was more a case where a group of faculty and staff took it upon themselves to help students, said Gándara.

“Somebody has to demonstrate the interest; there’s nothing systemic that’s happens here,” Gándara said.  “So it isn’t like the chancellor’s office says, ‘Okay, this is something we’ve got to do, let’s get on board.’  It’s hit or miss.”

Giving Bachelor’s a chance

California doesn’t do too well on college completion even at four-year colleges and universities, according to Beyond the Master Plan:  The Case for Restructuring Baccalaureate Education in California.   First released in 2010, this report was also posted yesterday on the Civil Rights Project website.  It’s co-authored by former University of California President Richard Atkinson.  Among its findings:

  • California ranks 43rd out of the 50 states in the proportion of its college-age population who earn baccalaureate degrees,
  • California community colleges now enroll 40-to-50 percent of all students seeking a baccalaureate degree.

Atkinson and co-author Saul Geiser of UC Berkeley, don’t lay all the blame for California’s anticipated shortage of qualified workers with college degrees on the favorite whipping boys of the economic downturn, the growing population of immigrants and the failure of community colleges.  They point to a decision made in 1960, a time when enrollment in the state’s public four-year and two-year colleges was almost equally divided.

“But in a cost-cutting move, the framers of the Master Plan limited eligibility for admission to UC and CSU to the top eighth and top third, respectively, of the state’s high school graduates, diverting many students to 2-year institutions,” they wrote.

The Student Success Task Force report already recommends streamlining the transfer process and providing incentives for students to move quickly toward their goals.  Orfield and Gándara would add to that allowing community colleges to offer B.A. degrees.  It would create more spaces for students seeking four-year degrees without the added step of transferring.  Geiser and Atkinson see too many challenges to that model, such as cost and accreditation problems, but do recommend a hybrid model through which four-year and two-year colleges would collaborate to offer B.A. degrees.

Such changes may not be an easy sell as the chair of the Assembly higher education committee found last session.  Assemblyman Marty Block [D- San Diego] introduced a AB 661, a bill that would have created a pilot program for B.A. degrees in two community college districts.  It died on the inactive file.

Author: Kathryn Baron

Kathryn Baron, co-writer of TOP-Ed (Thoughts On Public Education in California), has been covering education in California for about 15 years; most of that time at KQED Public Radio where her reports aired on The California Report as well as various National Public Radio programs. She also wrote for magazines and newspapers before going virtual as producer and editor at The George Lucas Educational Foundation. Kathy grew up in New York in a family of teachers. She moved to California for graduate school and after spending one sunny New Year’s Day riding her bicycle in the foothills, decided to stay. She and her husband live in Belmont. They have two children, one in college and one in high school.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *