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Testimony: Transfer Is Key to Closing the Workforce Skills Gap

Hans Johnson March 20, 2018
Students climbing steps together

Hans Johnson, director and senior fellow at the PPIC Higher Education Center, testified March 20, 2018, before the Senate Select Committee on Student Success.

Here are his prepared remarks.

California faces a shortage of highly educated workers. Specifically, economic projections to 2030 show that about two in five jobs will require at least a bachelor’s degree, while demographic projections suggest that only about one in three Californians will attain this level of education. This shortfall equates to 1.1 million workers. To close the gap, all higher education systems will need to play a role, increasing access, transfer, and completion. Improving access and outcomes among groups historically underrepresented in higher education—including low-income students, first-generation college students, Latinos, and African Americans—is essential if we are to close the workforce skills gap.

The good news is that California’s students are rising to the challenge. College preparation among high school graduates has increased, with the share of students completing the college preparatory requirements of UC and CSU now at an all-time high. Strong demand for UC and CSU is likely to continue as college preparation improves and the transfer pathway becomes more efficient and effective. In addition, new initiatives, including reforms in remedial education at the community colleges and CSU, have the potential to substantially improve student success rates and boost transfer. Finding ways to accommodate all these students remains a central challenge, but one that must be met in order to ensure a better future for all Californians.

In this testimony, I will focus on the importance of transfer. California enrolls a disproportionate share of students in community college. We rank 47th in the nation in the share of recent high school graduates enrolling in four-year colleges and 5th in the nation in the share enrolling in community colleges. This means that we must do more to ensure that community college students reach their educational goals—since the vast majority of recent high school graduates attending community colleges say that they want to transfer and earn a bachelor’s degree. As shown in the chart below, there is a lot of room for improvement—only 40% of recent high school graduates who go to community college will end up transferring to a four-year institution.

PPIC has identified ambitious targets that would close the workforce skills gap. As shown in the table below, doing so will require large increases in access to UC and CSU, both for first time freshmen and for transfer students. In its Vision for Success, a blueprint for improving student outcomes, the community colleges have established new goals for transfer that align exactly with the PPIC targets. Those targets include a 35% increase in the number of transfer students at UC and CSU, increasing from about 72,000 combined in 2015 to almost 100,000 by 2020.

I’m pleased to say that the colleges are currently on track to meet those targets. We are now two years into PPIC’s projections, and both UC and CSU have met the closing-the-gap targets (see charts below). The concerted efforts of policymakers, higher education officials—including staff and faculty—and, of course, students have led to these early gains.  State general fund allocations for each system have increased since the Great Recession, allowing for increased enrollment. At UC, those budget allocations were partially tied to increasing enrollment, hence the sharp rise in transfers from 2015 to 2016.  New articulation agreements, such as the Associate Degree for Transfer (ADT), have streamlined the pathway from community colleges to four-year colleges, especially CSU. And an increased focus on improving student outcomes in the community colleges has led to multiple substantive reforms designed to increase persistence and completion (including transfer).

These early successes are very promising. Still, California needs to build on them if it is to close the degree gap.  We offer the following recommendations for moving forward:

  • First, the state should work with the systems to ensure that students who are eligible for transfer successfully make the transition. Some students who are eligible to transfer never even apply to do so. More work needs to be done to understand factors that prevent those students from moving on, including an assessment of equity implications. At the same time, many transfer-eligible students do apply to transfer, but are not admitted because of insufficient resources at UC and CSU. Because of budget constraints, CSU reports turning away more than 32,000 transfer applicants from 2013–14 through 2016–17, even though they had met CSU admission requirements (based on systemwide unduplicated counts of California resident applications). UC does not report how many qualified applicants have been turned away, partly because UC eligibility is less clearly defined. UC has general transfer requirements, including courses and grade point average requirements, but advises students that “meeting these basic requirements doesn’t guarantee admission to the campus or major of your choice.” Enrolling more students will almost certainly require more funding, either from the state via the general fund or from students and their families through tuition increases.
  • Second, the pathway from community college to UC and CSU needs to become systematically and comprehensively streamlined. The Associate Degree for Transfer is a step in the right direction. Students earning an ADT are guaranteed admission to CSU in a major aligned to their course of study. But these degrees are offered only in some majors at some colleges. While the number of students earning an ADT has grown rapidly, it is still the case that the majority of transfers to CSU do not have the degree. As shown in the chart below, institutional participation in the program varies by college and by major. Some majors, including engineering, have no ADT at all.  Moreover, UC does not formally participate in the ADT guarantee. At UC, transfer admission requirements vary by campus and by majors within campuses.  For example, UC Berkeley’s College of Engineering has much higher standards than the UC minimum requirements for transfer, including a 3.5 grade point average and the completion of courses that are not offered at all community colleges.

  • Third, the state and its higher education institutions need to plan for potentially large increases in the number of community college students prepared and ready to transfer. New reforms in the community colleges hold the promise of dramatically increasing persistence and completion. Assessment and placement reform, spurred by AB 705, is likely to lead to an enormous increase in the number of students placed directly into college-level English and math courses—bypassing traditional remedial classes that have been the single largest impediment to student success. Other new initiatives, including “guided pathways” intended to provide a clear road map to students on courses of study and the supports needed to succeed, could lead to further gains. Because most transfer students enroll in CSU and UC, capacity issues at those institutions must be addressed. The state’s private nonprofit colleges are also an important destination for transfer students, and continued efforts should seek to gain greater participation and enrollment in that vital sector.

Through thoughtful planning—and yes, additional funding—closing the workforce skills gap is possible. Improving the transfer pathway is a necessary and critical component. And because community colleges are highly representative of California’s economic and demographic diversity, improving transfer pathways will ensure that more low-income, first-generation, and underrepresented students have access to a four-year degree.

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