Transferring from California community colleges? It’s a tough road, EdSource survey finds

Students walk from Laxson Auditorium on Thursday, March 2, 2023 in Chico, Calif. (Jason Halley/University Photographer/Chico State)

Jacob Beeman’s transfer goals were pushed back by about a year because he was taking the wrong community college classes to transfer.

“I had been jumping through all these hoops to try and get the right classes I needed to transfer and going off the advice of people who I trusted to know what they were doing,” he said.

Except Beeman, 26, who was interested in transferring into the University of California system to study chemical engineering, said he was incorrectly advised by three different advisers while attending Fresno City College.

“Different advisers thought I needed one particular class — a communications class,” he said. “And then I found out later that that particular class UC didn’t accept, so I had to sign up for another one. And then I was told the UC doesn’t actually require a communications class at all.”

Beeman’s experience is familiar to many students. A recent EdSource special report, “A broken system of university transfers,” detailed the barriers for students who want to transfer into the state’s public universities. As a 2021 study found, only 2.5% actually do so in two years or less and 23% in four years or less. EdSource also conducted a survey of current and former students, which revealed that over half had difficulties with the transfer process. The responses reflect the problems that the state, universities, and two-year colleges have addressed or are working to improve but former and current students say they continue to experience.

When it came to understanding the courses they needed to take to transfer, among 586 respondents, more than 52% agreed with Beeman that the process was difficult to understand.

Most current students indicated they had successfully transferred to a four-year university, but nearly half said they had found the transfer process difficult to understand.

More than 700 people responded, with 45% identifying as current students and nearly 47% as former students.

After his experience, Beeman said his attitude about transfer changed.

“It empowered me to take it into my own hands,” said Beeman who started by reading the detailed transfer agreements between the California community colleges, the California State University system and the UC system.

Beeman said it wasn’t easy. He would compare the agreements to figure out which classes he needed and return to the transfer center to see if they agreed with his assessment. Finally, he was able to put together a plan that worked for him.

Beeman graduated from Fresno City College this spring with plans to attend UC Riverside this fall.

Aisha Lowe, the community college system’s vice chancellor for educational services, said she understands students’ frustrations and confusion with the transfer process. She cited “local authority” that allows individual CSU campuses to determine whether certain associate degrees will be accepted for transfer into their campus.

“It really leaves our students in a position where if they want to be competitive, they end up taking a multiplicity of courses so that they can align to a diversity of requirements across any particular set of university institutions that they’re trying to gain admissions into,” Lowe said.

UC also makes its own rules about transfers and last week declared its opposition to automatically admitting students who complete an “associate degree for transfer,” saying it would leave some students unprepared for their majors because they would enter lacking required courses. CSU has adopted the pathway, and lawmakers are pushing it as a way to ease transfer from community colleges to the nine UC campuses.

For some community college students, current and former, it’s taken years or even decades to complete their transfer goal. Among current students who took the survey, more than 68% reported it’s taking them more than two years to complete their community college degree, with nearly 8% of them reporting it’s taking more than four years.

Marvin Espinoza said he found there was little support for working students when he first enrolled in community college in 1991. He would eventually transfer to CSU Dominguez Hills in 1997.

“I was working full-time and going to school at night,” he said. “Most of my classmates relied heavily on each other to keep informed.”

Espinoza, who was also supporting a family while in college, said he ultimately transferred with more than 100 credit hours because, at the time, he had to take a host of remedial classes, which don’t offer credit. The vast majority of remedial education in California’s community colleges was banned only last year when Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 1705.

“It was very discouraging,” said Espinoza, who dropped and withdrew from a variety of classes during his community college time while studying child development at LA Southwest. After being placed on academic probation, Espinoza had to appeal to the college that he would gradually pass his classes.

“I wanted to get out of there,” he said, adding that it was his determination and his work within Los Angeles Unified School District to move up the career ladder that encouraged him to get his degree and pursue a transfer. At the time, Espinoza worked as a teaching aide and traveling playground supervisor for the school district.

Now, Espinoza is pursuing his doctoral degree from CSU San Bernardino where he’s working on a dissertation examining the experiences of Black and Latino males’ transitioning to college. Espinoza, who describes himself as Black, said he wants to use his experience to help other men of color earn their degrees.

Most respondents — nearly 77% of 648 of them — said they took breaks or dropped out of college for financial, academic, family or work obligations.

It took Arlene Del Bene nearly 40 years, and three community colleges, to eventually transfer to UC Davis. She first enrolled in Hartnell College shortly after graduating from high school in 1979.

“I had always wanted to go to UC, even when I was in high school,” Del Bene said. “I’m a first-generation college student, or at least I was at the time. I was the oldest in my family, but I didn’t know how to get (to UC).”

Del Bene said there wasn’t a road map for transferring. And eventually, other priorities like getting married, having children, and maintaining a job became more important.

Del Bene watched her younger siblings and children attend and graduate from college. But she remained determined to earn a UC degree.

It wasn’t until 2000 that Del Bene enrolled once again at Los Medanos College to try to transfer again. By then she had four children and was working full time. It would be another 15 years before she would transfer to UC Davis in 2015, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology in 2017.

Out of 648 respondents, nearly 82% reported they had an adviser who guided them in selecting their college courses. And of the 18% of respondents who said they didn’t have an adviser, 32% said having help would have made the process easier for them.

Mauricio Gonzalez became so disillusioned with California’s transfer process, both as a student and later as a college counselor, that he decided to do something about it: He left his job to launch a tech startup to help students navigate the college experience.

Gonzalez, originally from King City in Salinas Valley, enrolled at Cuesta College in 1994.

A first-generation college student, Gonzalez said he likely would have dropped out if not for Janet Flores, a counselor he met by chance at Cuesta. Flores, who was Latina, helped keep him motivated and eventually became his mentor. Before being introduced to Flores, Gonzalez said he never met faculty or staff “who resembled me” or who understood him.

“She understood why I didn’t really have a goal or a plan. She understood all that, and she took me under her wing and started counseling me,” he said.

When Gonzalez entered college, he didn’t know what he wanted to study but decided on Chicano studies after Flores introduced him to her own undergraduate major.

“Before those classes, I never saw my people in history books. I was only taught white history. We were taught that we are farmworkers, that we are the labor, that we are the cleaners of the home, the construction workers. But those classes changed my life. I now understood systematic racism and discrimination,” he said.

He eventually transferred to Sonoma State University and, drawing inspiration from Flores, would go on to get his master’s degree in counseling at San Jose State.

Since finishing his master’s in 2001, Gonzalez has worked as a counselor at community colleges, most recently at Sacramento City College. But he became discouraged when, as one of 10 counselors, he could only see a maximum of 10 students a day for 30 minutes at a time. It wasn’t enough time with students, and Gonzalez realized that most students aren’t fortunate enough to build relationships with counselors like he did with Flores.

He’s hoping he can make more of an impact with his new company, called Inspirame — or “inspire me” in Spanish. One of its main features is to take information about courses and degree programs and simplify it for students. Students can also find out what financial aid they are eligible to receive.

“I’m going straight to the students and their families. My wife and I said, enough is enough. We left our jobs to revolutionize how people survive higher ed. And I say ‘survive’ because it’s survival,” he said.

Confusion over what courses to take also affects students who return to community colleges for advanced training.

Laura Jennings had already had her teaching degree when she moved from Delaware to California with her military husband. But, in order to continue teaching special education in the state, Jennings needed certifications in autism and English as a second language. So, in 2013, she enrolled at Solano Community College near Travis Air Force Base, where her husband was stationed.

“Figuring out which classes to take was difficult and the advisers really had no clue about state licensure or how any of the courses related to what I was trying to accomplish in terms of career movement,” Jennings, 41, said. “That was frustrating.”

Jennings, who worked as a teacher on a provisional license at the time, said she contacted the military veterans representative in Solano County for help and reached out to the state’s teacher credentialing office, which eventually helped her figure out that she needed six autism and eight ESL classes. But Solano’s class schedules required her to take them one at a time, which meant finishing in two years.

“I always did look at the community college and thinking this is the place where you get the lowest cost, and usually you can enroll, do the class, and be done,” she said. “You don’t have to do the huge admissions process of a university, but it’s just really hard to get classes that you want at the time that you want them.”

Jennings learned that she could finish the credentials online in one year at the former non-profit Brandman University, now UMass Global. Although choosing a private, nonprofit or for-profit institution tends to cost students more than attending a community college, Jennings said she worked as a teacher on a provisional license and her school covered her tuition costs. Jennings said she also didn’t qualify for any financial aid at the community college because she already had a degree and is married.

“Maybe if I was about to get my degree, I would’ve advocated more and said, ‘Hey, we need to change this, it needs to be easier,” Jennings said.

Jennings was among the 5% who said they did not complete their program or degree. She ended up becoming a website builder with skills she learned from Google training through Coursera, an open online learning platform that partners with businesses, universities and colleges to provide degrees and certifications.

“I would rather have taken those classes in person, too,” she said. “But the community colleges don’t really offer those accelerated programs that are online.”

Despite the barriers to transfer, 36% of respondents said it was easy for them to understand which courses they needed to take for transfer, of which nearly 8% reported it was extremely easy to understand.

A transfer system often described as complex and confusing was anything but that for Alex Moxon, something he attributes to his counselors at Butte College.

Moxon started at the University of Arizona, but after a semester returned to his hometown near Chico and enrolled in 2019 at Butte.

While at Butte, Moxon met regularly with an adviser who helped guide him through his computer science bachelor’s degree.

“When I first showed up for orientation, I met with this adviser and she asked me what my goals were and what I was thinking degree-wise and where I wanted to go. And based on that, she gave me a road map of what classes I needed to take and which ones would transfer to CSU,” Moxon said.

Moxon said he met in person with that adviser every semester. On top of that, he got regular emails from her as she checked in to see how his classes were going and make sure he was staying on track. Once he got to Chico State, he had a similarly positive experience with the computer science faculty, who held workshops and provided him with road maps each semester so he knew what classes to take. He graduated in 2021 and now works for American Express as a software engineer.

His only complaint about the process was having to hand-deliver his transcripts to Chico State after two attempts by mail, a snafu his roommates faced as well.

Tatiana Torres, who was recently accepted as a transfer student to UC Berkeley for this fall, also described her experience as mostly positive. She credits this to her assertive nature.

Growing up in Contra Costa County, Torres always dreamed of attending Berkeley. Her aunt, the first in their family to go to college, attended Berkeley. Torres’ dad would also often take her to volleyball games at Berkeley.

After Torres was rejected from most of UC’s campuses when she was a senior in high school, she decided to attend a community college, Los Medanos, and try to transfer to Berkeley.

Torres aimed to finish her classes at Los Medanos within one year, an ambitious but doable goal because she entered with 23 credits from Advanced Placement and dual enrollment classes she took in high school.

Transferring within one year was “really stressful,” said Torres, who took classes last summer and over the winter term. Among the most challenging tasks was making sure she was taking the specific courses she needed for her political science major.

Torres said she would often show up at the transfer center at Los Medanos, ask to meet with counselors and “ask a lot of questions.” She also joined a mentorship program and got paired with a student from Berkeley who had successfully transferred. Torres said she talked to her mentor “all the time” and the two of them worked tirelessly on the essays that Torres submitted as part of her application, which she felt were crucial.

She was ultimately accepted both at Berkeley and at UC Davis and chose to enroll at Berkeley, where she begins classes in August.

“You definitely have to go out, and you have to look for resources and advocate for yourself,” Torres said of the transfer process.

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