The following interview is with Beth Smith, president of the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges. California recently introduced a bill to create a series of specified timelines for community colleges to create a previously legislated set of curricula and transfer degrees to facilitate mobility to four-year universities. In this interview, Smith discusses the legislation, SB-440, and shares her views on what this new proposed legislation will mean for students and institutions.
1. What are the most treacherous roadblocks that currently stand in the way of students looking to transfer from community colleges to four-year universities in California?
I would say that the biggest obstacle is just capacity, and that has to do with a funding issue around our state — which is not uncommon in other places around the country — of finding enough seats for students who desire higher education. And the community colleges are providing excellent instruction, pathways [and] opportunities for students to prepare for major, transfer and upper division work, and what we’re finding is that even if we prepare lots and lots of students, they can’t all find the seats they need at the university. That’s a problem for us; that’s the biggest obstacle to transfer.
2. The new piece of legislation, SB-440, aims to create a series of specified timelines that would make transferring to four-year institutions easier for students. What are a few of the advantages of this bill?
440 builds on the original transfer bill, SB-1440 from 2010, that really was a reform for us and how we view transfer in creating pathways and guarantees for students if they move from community colleges to one of our public higher education institutions in the state. This is not to all public higher education institutions, but one segment, and it’s a very important one because many of our students take advantage of that pathway to the CSU (that’s California State University).
So, 1440 motivated the faculty in the community colleges and the CSU to get together to examine major preparations, the value of degrees — both the associate’s degree and the bachelor’s degree — and look at the volume of students transferring in different majors and create pathways for them, so that they knew exactly what to take at the community college as well as at the University to complete an associate’s degree in 60 units and then the bachelor’s degree in a total of 120. So, this legislation really got it started, got the conversation going, got a lot of good work in getting the faculty accomplished, and we engaged disciplined faculty around the state. So SB-440 is following on that, trying to put some finishing touches on it and, really, clarify some places where perhaps there was not specific information in the past, as well as to establish some timelines which both segments have established internally. So that’s something that we all recognize needs to occur.
One of the best great benefits of 440 is the emphasis on getting the word out about these degrees to students, both in the high schools as they’re preparing for that next step after high school and for students at the community colleges as they examine what their options are as well. So, we have to do a better job of getting the word out around California to students and … everybody who works with individuals who are trying to make a decision about their educational pathway.
3. Conversely, what are the most significant problems with SB-440?
With all the good things that are in 1440 and 440, the faculty have a concern about only one aspect of 440, and that is a part that requires the community colleges to create four additional pathways in what’s called an “area of emphasis,” so this is a little different than a major. It’s a little more generic, a little more vague. And, because of that, it really doesn’t fit [the] intent or the parameters of 1440 from the faculty perspective.
We were under the impression that we had to create very well-defined pathways that created a meaningful associate’s degree as well as prepare students for a major in upper division work in that major and from this alternative type of a degree, we’re not seeing that really meets all of those goals of 1440 very well.
We also don’t see that there’s any evidence that we’re missing a significant portion of students who would need these alternate options. We looked at the volume of students, the most highly involved majors — transfer major — and we’ve addressed all of those up to this point and there are still some in the queue that we’re working on and developing the majors that we’re going to address in some different ways because, again, they didn’t fit 1440.
But we just don’t see the evidence that these other four required pathways are necessary and so that’s our concern; we’ve spoken to the author about it, we’ve spoken to many of the others who are interested in these areas of emphasis to try to explain what this really means for students, because we don’t see it benefiting them, ultimately, in the end.
4. Is there anything you’d like to add about the recent legislative push to facilitate transfer for community college students to four-year universities and what that’s going to take from the community college side?
Well, the community colleges have always recognized preparing students for transfer as one of our missions. We have a mission that’s stated in the law in California and transfer preparation is one of those things and so we are doing everything we can — every day of the week, every day of the year — to help our students be more successful.
They need to determine early on, if they can, what their major is and which university system or where they would like to go in terms of transfer and all of those important decisions that they make along the way to help get them to their destination more aggressively. We have always been working on that from our end.
Some of the legislators intend to create more legislation regarding transfer. [This] has the potential to undo some of that good work or to create additional unintended barriers. So, we’re always cautious about new transfer legislation and how that will be received or incorporated into the good work that we do. And, like I said at the beginning, the biggest issue for us is just capacity. We have students that are well-prepared, ready to go, and they have no place to go; that is a concern for us.
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