COMMENTARY: To close racial equity gaps, make it simpler for community college students to transfer

Credit: Alison Yin/EdSource

Ensuring success for students at California’s community colleges must be at the heart of racial justice efforts in higher education. Our state’s community colleges enroll the majority of Black and Latinx students in California higher education. But enrollment does not equal degree attainment.

Not enough students are reaching the finish line.

A new report by the Campaign for College Opportunity finds dismal transfer rates from community colleges to CSU and UC and that Black and Latinx students are some of the least likely to transfer and earn a bachelor’s degree. Only 3% of Black and Latinx students will transfer in two years, and less than half will reach the doors of a university in six years.

Upon reaching a university, under half of all community college transfer students will earn a bachelor’s degree in two years at the California State University system, where the majority of Latinx students transfer. At the University of California, less than two-thirds of community college transfer students will earn a bachelor’s degree in two years.

When Math 106 and Math 003 are the same class at different colleges, how do students know which one to take? When one counselor recommends one transfer pathway and another recommends another, how does a student know whom to listen to?

When the University of California, California State University and private colleges all have different requirements, how does a student decide which requirements to follow, especially if they are applying to more than one system, like students often do? When the UC or CSU asks a student to retake a course they successfully took at a community college, does a student know why or how to challenge that?

Our higher education system puts the burden on students to deconstruct the inner workings of a disjointed transfer system.

They not only have to be students (and often working students, first-gen students and student parents), but they also have to be part-time investigators, getting to the bottom of the mystery that is “How to Transfer.” More often than not, they are also their own singular advocate. The high percentage who don’t solve that mystery end up taking excess credits, spending additional time and money (millions in total annually), and sometimes never reaching their final destination. It is unfair to ask our students to take on this work; this should be the job of the college and university system.

Systemic problems in higher education, especially ones that disproportionally affect students of color, require equity-minded policy solutions.

Once such solution where we have seen tremendous progress is through the associate degree for transfer, which makes the transfer process simpler and more transparent. It promises that every student who completes 60 transferrable credits in a California Community College earns this degree and is guaranteed admission as a junior into a corresponding degree program at a CSU campus.

The more than 250,000 students who have transferred using this pathway have done so with fewer excess college credits and seen higher two- and three-year completion rates at the CSU than their peers with AA/AS degrees.

The associate degree for transfer was introduced 10 years ago to streamline multiple pathways and increase the number of students transferring. However, a lack of coordination, the continued existence of multiple transfer pathways and a lack of communication to students has kept the associate degree for transfer from becoming the preferred transfer pathway.

If we want to address racial inequity at community colleges, we must strengthen the transfer pathway by passing bold, transformational legislation. A bill before the state Senate, AB 928, would establish a committee representing K-12 schools, community colleges and public and private universities to simplify transfers, consolidate general education pathways and automate the placement of community college students onto a pathway to maximize their probability of transferring successfully.

As the president of COLEGAS, an organization comprised of Latinx professionals in the California Community College system committed to closing racial equity gaps for Latinx students, and the president of A2MEND, an organization of African American male community college administrators and faculty promoting institutional change to significantly increase the success of Black males, we know firsthand that our students want to be successful.

We have seen them working hard to navigate the transfer process both at the community colleges and in our state’s four-year universities. As college leaders who profess a commitment to racial equity, we must get back to the table to strengthen our system’s pathway for transfers to make good our promise to guide our students all the way to the graduation stage with a bachelor’s degree in hand.


Scott W. Thayer, Ed.D., is co-founder and president of A2MENDCynthia Olivo, Ph.D., is founder and president of COLEGAS.

The opinions in this commentary are those of the authors. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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