PPIC Logo Independent, objective, nonpartisan research
Press Release · March 19, 2014

Community Colleges, CSU Show Progress in Developing Transfer Pathway, But Obstacles Remain

Recommendations Include Ways To Expand Number Of Degrees, Increase Student Awareness

SAN FRANCISCO, March 19, 2014—A California community college degree designed to streamline students’ admission to the California State University (CSU) is leading to clearer pathways for transfer. But efforts to fully implement this reform face a number of challenges, according to a progress report released today by the Public Policy Institute of California.

The report finds that the California Community Colleges (CCC) have made significant progress in developing associate degrees for transfer, first offered in 2011–2012. These degrees are designed to streamline a complex, inefficient process that has led to low rates of transfer to four-year universities.

Nearly half of the state’s community colleges—54 of 112—now offer 10 or more transfer degrees out of the 25 possible degrees approved by the CCC and CSU systems. However, some community colleges offer only a few transfer degrees, raising questions about equal access. Those that offer just a few of the degrees include both large colleges in urban or suburban areas and small colleges in rural areas.

Associate degrees for transfer consist of 60 units that include general education requirements and a minimum of 18 units in a major. CSU must admit a student with a transfer degree to one of its campuses as a junior and grant the student priority in admission to an academic major that is “similar” to the program completed at community college. CSU campuses determine which programs are similar to CCC areas of study. The CSU campus must also guarantee that these transfer students will need to complete no more than 60 additional units of coursework to earn a bachelor’s degree and will not be required to repeat a course successfully completed at community college.

The PPIC report finds that CSU campuses have made significant progress in increasing the share of majors that they accept as “similar.” But some campuses accommodate transfer degrees in only some of their bachelor’s degree programs, or to only limited options or concentrations within a particular major.

“The new degrees were created with the laudable goal of establishing consistent transfer requirements throughout the state to increase transfer rates and better serve students,” said study co-author Colleen Moore, research specialist at the Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy (IHELP) at Sacramento State University. “Progress on this goal has been steady and remains promising, but implementation faces multiple challenges.”

The report identifies several issues that may be limiting the number of students pursuing this degree:

  • The guarantee of admission to a CSU somewhere in the system may not be compelling for students who want to transfer to a campus close to home, and capacity constraints at the CSU may limit the value of the promise of admission.
  • The lack of participation by the University of California means that the new transfer degrees are not really the “statewide” pathway envisioned by the legislation, posing a challenge for students who want to keep open the option of transfer to either a CSU or UC campus.
  • A survey of CCC student leaders suggests that awareness of the new degree is limited and efforts to inform students have been insufficient.
  • A one-size-fits-all approach may not be appropriate for all majors. In science or technical fields, for example, 120 units may not be enough for a student to acquire necessary knowledge.

The study’s authors emphasize the need for realistic expectations about the extent to which the new degrees would become the preferred transfer pathway for all California students. A student who follows this pathway and graduates with no more than 120 units must quickly choose a major, decide early on CSU as a destination, get admitted to a campus with a similar major, and avoid changing majors once at CSU. Many CCC students enter college without the knowledge and experience for such expeditious completion of their goals.

“The goal should be to increase the number of students who can benefit from this pathway, and then see whether additional approaches can be devised to better serve those who may not be able to take advantage of it,” said co-author Nancy Shulock, executive director of IHELP and an adjunct fellow at PPIC.

The authors offer recommendations for legislators and leaders in the CCC and CSU system to improve the implementation effort. Among them: that CSU review majors deemed “not similar” to determine whether the designation is warranted, that CCC share resources so that smaller colleges can offer more transfer degrees, and that the legislature fund efforts to increase awareness of the transfer degree and try to involve the University of California to expand the pool of students who can be served by this reform.

The report is From Community College to University: Expectations for California’s New Transfer Degrees.


PPIC is dedicated to informing and improving public policy in California through independent, objective, nonpartisan research on major economic, social, and political issues. The institute was established in 1994 with an endowment from William R. Hewlett. PPIC does not take or support positions on any ballot measure or on any local, state, or federal legislation, nor does it endorse, support, or oppose any political parties or candidates for public office.