California lawmakers and some higher ed leaders and advocates celebrated last week when Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill into law that aims to simplify the transfer process for community college students and offer a smoother path for enrolling at University of California and California State University institutions.
Supporters of the legislation see it as a win for students. California Community College system administrators and faculty groups, who opposed the bill and consider it well intentioned but misguided, say it’s anything but. They worry the new measure limits students’ academic options and doesn’t hold universities accountable for removing potential roadblocks in the transfer process.
“It’s just going to make transfer much clearer, given the real maze that transfer has been for too, too long,” said Michele Siqueiros, president of the Campaign for College Opportunity, a California-based advocacy and research organization, who helped craft the legislation.
The split between proponents and opponents of the law is “quite rare” for legislation intended to help students, said Evan Hawkins, executive director of the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges, which advocates for legislative and policy priorities and opposed the bill. He said the debate over the new policy suggests the law is out of touch with the needs of community colleges and the students they serve.
Many of the supporters “don’t have any sort of real connection to our community colleges and the day-to-day work that we do,” he said.
The legislation requires the UC and CSU systems to settle on a common set of general education classes and create a single lower-division transfer pathway by fall 2025. It also requires California Community Colleges to automatically place all students who plan to transfer on an associate degree for transfer, or ADT, pathway, unless they opt out, by August 2024. These transfer pathways offer students guaranteed admission to an institution within the CSU system, and versions of them are accepted at some private universities and some historically Black colleges. The law also establishes a committee of representatives from the community college and university systems to oversee the ADT pathway.
Supporters of the law argue that it streamlines a leaky and overcomplicated transfer process in which students end up taking extra courses, which translates to extra costs, and often fail to transfer altogether.
Only 22 percent of students in the state who started at a community college in 2015-16 transferred to a four-year institution after three years, according to data from the California Community Colleges.
“The most important part of this bill is it centers students in transfer and transfer reform,” said Alison Wrynn, associate vice chancellor of academic programs, innovations and faculty development for the CSU system. She believes the legislation offers community college students a “much clearer path forward” to a bachelor’s degree at a CSU institution. She also noted that creating a single joint pathway to the UC and CSU systems means students won’t feel “overwhelmed” by choices when it comes to which lower-division classes to take.
That’s not how key leaders in the California Community Colleges system see things. The chancellor’s office, the Community College League of California and the system’s Academic Senate, among others, all came out against the bill and argued the measures are the wrong way to fix the transfer process.
Some opponents have qualms about putting more students on the existing ADT pathway because it guarantees admission to a CSU institution somewhere in the system, but not necessarily a CSU institution of a student’s choice. This point has caused confusion among some students.
Stephanie Goldman, associate director of the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges, said the lack of choice inconveniences students rooted in a particular geographic area. For example, a student attending a college in the San Diego Community College District might be admitted to Humboldt State University, which is hours away.
“That’s a problem for a lot of our students,” Goldman said. “Many of our students don’t have the resources to move because of jobs or family.”
The California Community Colleges chancellor’s office is “generally supportive” of a joint general education transfer pathway between the UC and CSU systems, said David O’Brien, the system’s vice chancellor for governmental relations. However, “the biggest concern” for system administrators is that the bill does nothing to compel the UC system to accept students on the ADT transfer pathway or to push the CSU system to guarantee them more seats at more institutions. He also noted that placing students on the ADT pathway will require the community colleges to provide more training for academic advisers and faculty members to help students navigate the change.
“Over all, we see a lot of workload being put on community colleges … which we will do and will implement with full fidelity and integrity,” he said. “And we don’t see a lot in the way of expectations on the receiving institutions.”
Critics of the bill also argued that not all students want to transfer to a CSU institution.
Leaders of the California Community Colleges Student Senate said in an August letter to State Assemblymember Marc Berman, the author of the bill, that the group would support the legislation if the provision to place students on the ADT pathway was removed.
“By automatically placing students on an ADT pathway, these students may be at a serious disadvantage, which would require them to potentially take additional courses if they choose a different route later in their time at CCC such as pursuing a degree at UC or a private institution,” they wrote.
Hawkins said a single UC and CSU general education pathway could theoretically solve this problem by making students simultaneously eligible to transfer to either system, but he believes aligning the two sets of general education courses will prove difficult and ultimately limit students’ course options.
The University of California Office of the President also opposed the legislation due to similar concerns about course variety.
“California community college students from low-income and/or underrepresented backgrounds should have the full range of options available to them as do their more advantaged peers, not a narrower path,” Kieran Flaherty, the office’s associate vice president and director of state governmental relations, wrote in an August letter to the chair of the California Senate appropriations committee.
He also argued that some of the differences between the UC and CSU systems’ transfer requirements reflect “differences in the missions and values of our institutions” and implementing a new singular pathway will be burdensome and costly.
A statement from the UC system said system leaders “will continue to evaluate the impact of the bill on the University’s students, governance structure, and the academic mission of UC.”
Siqueiros doesn’t buy the arguments that the legislation will force students onto an ill-fitting transfer pathway or deprive them of academic options. She believes streamlining measures doesn’t mean ignoring other issues, such as helping students attend universities near where they live. She added that course variety also is not a top priority for community college students.
“The idea that we should offer all of these different courses, even if they don’t lead to anything, is not why most students go to a community college,” she said. “Most students go because they want to transfer to a university.”
Wrynn noted that creating a joint pathway will be labor-intensive for faculty members across institutions. But “whenever you try to transform general education, it leads to challenges,” she said. “Will this be hard work for our system? Yes. But in the end, this is going to benefit our students.”
Hawkins said proponents and opponents of the bill share the same goal — to improve the transfer system — but he believes hiring more counselors to help students navigate the process or designating more seats at CSU institutions for former community college students would yield better results.
“We’re not saying the status quo is something we’re defending here,” he said. “What we’re saying is that we think this is a very simple way of solving a complex problem.”