Improving Community College Course Catalogs
Before the start of a new semester, students at California’s community colleges must sift through hundreds of courses and decide which ones will help them make progress toward their college and career goals. However, course prerequisites and program requirements can be complicated, and staff and counseling centers aren’t always readily available to help students make informed decisions. Course catalogs are a widely available resource at all 114 California community colleges—and improving these catalogs could help students better navigate their way through college.
Course catalogs contain most, if not all, of the information students need to build their college and career pathways. These resources are about 300 pages long on average and list detailed information about the college itself and the courses taught in a given academic year. They generally include degree and program descriptions, assessment and placement procedures, course prerequisites, credits earned per course, and much more. But course catalogs are often not structured in a way that makes this crucial information accessible.
Using clear flowcharts and diagrams is one way to help students understand the sequence of courses they need to take to achieve their academic goals. For instance, there is evidence that many students don’t fulfill math requirements, earn a degree or certificate, or transfer to a four-year university due to lengthy and confusing math course sequences. While most colleges depict course sequences using flowcharts and diagrams (88 out of the 114 colleges), there are still students at 26 colleges who have to figure out the appropriate sequence for themselves. San Jose City College has a good example of a flowchart that illustrates the sequence of math courses students need to take depending on their academic discipline—with different possible sequences for STEM and non-STEM majors (see p. 40 of the course catalog). Even among colleges that do provide helpful illustrations, less than half (46 colleges) provide them in a central resource like a college catalog. This adds an extra step for students who need to know which math courses will count toward their degree.
In addition, students on a vocational track may want to collect or combine different types of certificates within the same program. But only five colleges attempt to illustrate the course requirements for related degrees and certificates, and even then, the information is only available for a small number of programs. Including a diagram helps organize and distill this complicated set of information. For example, LA Trade Tech College designed a flowchart for the renewable energy program that shows how students can advance through and collect different degrees and certificates within a single program (see p. 120 of the course catalog).
There is a growing awareness that students need comprehensive tools that will allow them to make informed course selections. As part of the Guided Pathways project—which aims to better align campuses’ program structures with those of four-year colleges and the needs of the labor market—20 California community colleges are using “program maps” that include clear course sequences and academic milestones to help streamline students’ decision-making process. Leveraging the course catalog to make key information more accessible is another way that colleges can help students more efficiently achieve their college and career goals.