Community college-to-UC pipeline gets a boost as California ‘guarantees’ transfers
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For every two freshmen enrolled in a college in the University of California system, administrators say they would like to enroll one transfer student from a California community college.
Whether they succeed depends on the campus and the year and the community college enrollment – but that’s the goal all nine undergraduate campuses strive toward, said Gary Clark, the associate vice chancellor for enrollment management at the University of California, Los Angeles.
To reach that goal and also diversify the transfer population, university leaders announced a new program at UCLA designed specifically for students at community colleges that have historically sent few transfers to the University of California. UCLA will give these students’ applications special consideration, and if they don’t get in, they’ll be guaranteed admission to another campus in the UC system, which should boost the overall number of students transferring into the University of California.
University administrators have not yet selected the community colleges that will participate in the pilot program, but will choose from a list of schools identified as “high need” because they have larger proportions of students from low-income families.
The new program, which won’t begin until the fall of 2026, was developed by university leaders, the state legislature and the governor, as part of what they say is a general commitment to students coming from California community colleges.
“If it opens up a pathway to the University of California and to graduate from this incredibly distinguished university, it will mean a great deal to all California families, because it will enable young people to come to a university that will propel them in terms of social mobility,” said Katherine S. Newman, the University of California System’s provost. “We have a common commitment to making UC education as affordable as possible, and the community college transfer program is definitely a part of that.”
The pilot program will begin with at least eight majors and will expand to 12 within the first two years, including at least four in the science, technology, engineering and math fields, according to UC system administrators. Students enrolled in the program will be advised about which courses they need to take to be able to transfer into those majors in the UC system, which Newman said will help ensure they’re fully ready to enter the university campuses as juniors and be successful.
Across the nine colleges that make up the University of California system, 27 percent of undergraduates had transferred from a community college, according to an August 2023 report from the University of California’s Office of Institutional Research and Academic Planning.
These transfer students typically began their education at a California community college, and walked onto a UC campus, credit-wise, about halfway to earning their bachelor’s degrees.
Academically, these students are ready to be significant contributors in the classroom, Clark said. Often, the challenges they face outside the classroom pose greater threats to their education.
“A large state university, like us, needs to be committed to maintaining access. And in spite of the fact that we’ve gotten quite competitive from an admissions standpoint, we still want to ensure that students have more than one path to UCLA.”
Gary Clark, associate vice chancellor for enrollment management, University of California, Los Angeles
“These are students who may be two years out of high school. These are students who may be 22-plus years out of high school,” Clark said. “They might be parents. They might be veterans. They might be former foster youth.”
The transfer students are more likely to be from low-income families, or the first in their family to attend college, Clark said.
To ensure the students thrive in the classroom, the universities need to provide support with whatever their challenges may be. Each UC campus has a transfer student center, though the names vary and, in some cases, they also target returning students and veterans. UCLA’s Transfer Student Center offers students a chance to connect with each other and receive transfer-specific advising on a drop-in basis, Clark said.
UCLA students also have access to the Bruin Resource Center, which has programs that cater to students of several different identities and life experiences, Clark said. The targeted support services include programs for students who are struggling to meet their basic needs, students who are in recovery from substance abuse disorders and undocumented students, among other groups.
Clark does not expect that students coming from this new transfer program will have vastly different needs than the transfer students the university is already serving. And he doesn’t expect to have to scale up the existing resources, because the total number of transfer students at UCLA is likely to stay the same. The main difference for the transfer student population at UCLA will be which community colleges these students are transferring from.
Community college students who transfer to UCLA often go on to graduate, data shows. About 75 percent of transfer students earn a bachelor’s degree within 2 years, 90 percent within three years, and 93 percent within four years, according to data from the university’s website.
Still, they won’t all get in – UCLA accepted just 24 percent of transfer applicants in the fall of 2022 – but those who don’t will be guaranteed admission to another University of California campus, which administrators hope will increase the number of transfer students.
“If it opens up a pathway to the University of California and to graduate from this incredibly distinguished university, it will mean a great deal to all California families, because it will enable young people to come to a university that will propel them in terms of social mobility.”
Katherine S. Newman, provost, University of California System
Students turned down by UCLA might, for example, be admitted to the University of California, Riverside, about 80 miles to the east. UCLA accepts roughly 11 percent of first-year students, while UC Riverside accepts about 65 percent of first-year students and offers a Transfer Admission Guarantee to California community college students who meet certain requirements.
Recent data from the university shows that 58 percent of UC Riverside transfer students graduated in two years, 81 percent graduated within three years and nearly 85 percent graduated within four years.
Veronica Zendejas, director of undergraduate admissions at Riverside, said that the starting at a community college before transferring to a UC campus is the right choice for many students.
When she goes to recruit high schoolers, she reminds them that even if they start at a local community college, they can plan to transfer after earning an associate degree because of the university’s guaranteed admission for community college students who meet requirements.
“A lot of times now, what we’re seeing is a lot of students are purposely going to community college and taking those first two years to really think about what they want to do before transferring to a four-year institution,” Zendejas said.
Clark, from UCLA, said that other students may have life circumstances pop up that prevent them from pursuing a four-year university immediately after high school, and still others may apply but not be academically ready yet. Still, he said, there should be opportunities for those students to get into the University of California later on, when the time is right for them.
“A large state university, like us, I think needs to be committed to maintaining access. And in spite of the fact that we’ve gotten quite competitive from an admissions standpoint, we still want to ensure that students have more than one path to UCLA,” Clark said. “I think it’s kind of the right thing to do for a state university.”
This story about California community colleges was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter. Check out our College Welcome Guide.