SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE. FEBRUARY 20, 2013. It's not often that bureaucracy gets reversed.
But the tangled, expensive and highly irritating system by which students transfer from community colleges to a California State University is quickly becoming less tangled, less expensive and far less irritating than it used to be.
And students are figuring that out.
This spring, 2,000 community college students applying to CSU from across the state will be guaranteed admission as juniors because they enrolled in a new and expanding community college program called Associate Degree for Transfer. Those students will enter CSU with a two-year degree, 60 transferable units, priority placement into the university classes they need - and a promise that they will not be forced to go back and retake community college classes because some CSU campus randomly decided the lower-division course didn't meet its standards.
Interest is soaring. Seventeen times as many students will earn the degree this spring compared with last spring, when just 120 did so, although this year's 2,000 are still just 4 percent of the 50,000 students who transfer from community colleges each year.
"I'm the first to admit this is a small number given the size of our system - but it's just the beginning," said Erik Skinner, executive vice chancellor for the California Community College system. "We've made tremendous progress."
Having to retake classes has been one of students' most hair-yanking frustrations with California's transfer system. Programs from art history to psychology all have had different requirements, depending on which of the 112 community colleges a student happened to attend. And the state's 23 CSU campuses have also varied in their willingness to accept the classes - often sending students back to bolster their preparation.
Sorting things out
All that red tape, plus confusion about what is required to transfer and the inability to enroll in necessary classes because of overcrowding, has contributed to a dropout rate of 60 percent, according to the Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy in Sacramento. And those who don't drop out often find themselves floundering for years in what is supposed to be a two-year community college program and taking far more than the 60 units required for transfer.
Now a quiet revolution is changing this costly, bureaucratic morass.
It began with a law in September 2010 that mandated the creation of an Associate Degree for Transfer so students with a C average or better would be guaranteed a place within the CSU system.
But if CSU simply opened its doors to every student with 60 college credits, the result "could have been worse than before," Skinner said, because of the varying quality of the college programs.
Then, he said, "a brilliant solution came from faculty."
A fresh strategy
Community college and CSU faculty met for a year and agreed on curricula that would satisfy them both, creating templates for what community college instructors should teach in each academic program.
"So when the student gets to San Francisco State, the faculty know exactly what the students have taken and, maybe, what they haven't," said Jane Patton, the immediate past president of the community college system's Academic Senate, which organized the new approach. "It didn't mean there would be no flexibility for instructors, but we wanted to curtail the wide range" of quality.
Fears about the loss of academic freedom had been a reason that such standardization - including uniform course identification numbers across all community colleges - had never been achieved.
Education leaders estimate that as the transfer program takes hold, it will clear out space for some 40,000 more students to enroll in community colleges, and for 14,000 more students to enroll in CSU.
Faculty have already developed curriculum for the 22 most popular academic programs, which transfer nearly 80 percent of students. No college offers all of them. But every college offers at least two, and some have more than 10. City College of San Francisco offers three: English, psychology and communication. College of San Mateo offers 11, including kinesiology, geology, math and studio arts.
By the fall, colleges will have to offer transfer degrees in 80 percent of the academic programs approved under the new system, according to state law. And by fall 2014, the degree must be offered in every eligible program.
"We need to get the word out about this," said Ken O'Donnell, senior director of student engagement at CSU. "A lot of people who stand to benefit are the first in their family to come to college. But it's hard to explain to them, and it gets jargony in a hurry."
Getting the word out
So the community college system created a simple, multicolored website: www.adegreewithaguarantee.com. The site lets students choose an associate degree program, find the colleges that offer it, and see exactly what courses they'll need to earn the degree and transfer with 60 credits in two years.
Jeffrey Fang will have about 80 credits by the time he leaves City College of San Francisco this spring after five years. Fang sat in on planning meetings for the transfer program last year while representing his school on the Student Senate for California Community Colleges.
"I would have liked that program," said Fang, who hopes to become a lawyer and is waiting to hear if he's been accepted to San Francisco State and San Jose State.
At the same time, "my major is philosophy, and that's not a degree that's been approved," he said. "I'm not holding my breath. But I would have been very interested in looking at what it would do for me."
But fellow philosophy majors shouldn't worry about holding their breath. The latest program just approved for the transfer degree?