State University Systems Ease Pathways for Transfer Students

pathwayThere’s good news coming from the state university systems in California and Arizona. The states are working to increase the number of community college transfer students at their four-year universities by easing the pathways that will get them there successfully.

The changes in the transfer process could have profound effects on low-to-moderate income students. Not surprisingly, low-income students are more likely than their higher-income peers to start postsecondary education at lower-cost community colleges than at four-year institutions. With booming enrollment at community colleges nationwide—approximately seven million students or nearly half of all undergraduate students today—one can quickly surmise that community colleges are an important starting point for low-income students of all academic abilities seeking to obtain bachelor’s degrees.

The University of California system, which is made up of nine campuses and approximately 230,000 students, continues to work to bridge the gap between two-year and four-year institutions. In 2012-2013, 29 percent of the system’s students were community college transfer students, according to an article in the National Journal.

Although this statistic appears promising, some community colleges have been more successful than others. The National Journal reports, “Although African-Americans and Hispanic students make up nearly 46 percent of the state’s huge community-college student body, they represented only about 25 percent of those who transferred into UC. That was actually less than their share of the entering freshmen class for the UC system.”

The Los Angeles Times reported that half of the nearly 14,000 community college transfer students come from only 19 California community colleges, while the other half are from 93 different schools. Santa Monica College is a leader in transferring students into the elite UC system.


“While we are very strong in reaching low-income students and students who are first in their family to come to college, we can do a better job in reaching out to traditionally underrepresented students—ethnic minority students including African-Americans, Chicano/Latino students and American Indians,” associate vice president for undergraduate admissions for the UC system, Stephen Handel, said in an American Association of Community Colleges’ 21st Century Center article.

Now, the University of California taskforce—appointed last December by new system president Janet Napolitano—is concentrating onencouraging more demographic and geographic diversity.” The taskforce plans to build a partnership with underrepresented community colleges as well as “increase its visibility on every two-year campus; broaden its own direct outreach to community-college students; expand the transition services it provides to transfer students; and, perhaps most important, establish more consistency in the course requirements that each UC campus sets for admission.”

In an adjacent state, over the last four years, the University of Arizona has enrolled an average of 1,300 transfer students from state community colleges. By 2020, the university hopes to expand that number to 3,000 transfer students from Arizona community colleges, said Rafael Meza, senior director for transfer enrollment services at the University of Arizona, in an interview with Arizona Public Media. In an effort to meet its goal, the University of Arizona has increased the number of accepted transfer classes.

What California and Arizona have recognized through their efforts affirms the key findings in an eight-year evaluation of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation’s Community College Transfer Initiative (CCTI), which funded 14 highly selective colleges and universities with the goal of developing practices that promote sustainable increases in the number of community college high-achievers from low- to moderate-income backgrounds on four-year campuses. One of the CCTI goals was not simply increased enrollment but student success at those institutions.


As outlined recently on our blog, the CCTI evaluation was able to identify other promising practices from participating institutions to find and encourage community college students who may not be aware of new transfer opportunities, including:

  • Developing partnerships with community colleges. The best partnerships identified key individuals at both institutions focused on facilitating student transfer; established structures to facilitate frequent communication; and were mutually respectful, stressing the importance of learning from each other.

  • Convening a planning team, which sought to better understand the decision-making of low- to moderate-income community college students and the factors that contribute to their success.

  • Developing academic collaborations, ranging from co-presenting at conferences to more robust relationships involving faculty co-teaching classes to community college students.

  • Involving students who had already transferred in the outreach process to serve as ambassadors and peer mentors, provide input, and offer student perspectives to prospective transfer students.


The Foundation is pleased to see pathways for transfer students easing in influential states like California and Arizona. Certainly opening the door to give more students access to higher education is the right move. These universities have made important steps to recognize the need to adapt their systems to facilitate more community college student transfers. We hope that other colleges and universities follow suit, particularly highly-selective colleges and universities that have shown that they graduate a higher percentage of their students regardless of a student’s socio-economic background.