Colleges Shun Funds to Boost Transfer Rates


The state is ready to spread $2 million among community colleges with the worst transfer rates to four-year universities. The money would pay for programs designed to boost those numbers.

But no college seems to want to apply for the grant funds, because officials say no school relishes going on record as an underachiever. So the $2 million, in the pipeline since November, is still unclaimed several weeks after lawmakers made it available.

The orphaned bounty reflects the hypersensitivity in ranking community colleges by the head count of students who move on to four-year institutions. Transfer rates vary widely among the state’s 108 community colleges, with urban schools typically placing lower on the curve. The urban numbers are behind much of an intensifying debate over the transfer figures.

Late last year, state Community College Chancellor Tom Nussbaum identified the campuses with the poorest transfer records, using a controversial formula that critics said penalized urban schools. The bottom 14, including seven in the Los Angeles area, made enough challenges to the scoring methods that the chancellor scrapped the results.


In terms of doling out the grant dollars, Nussbaum said his hands are tied because lawmakers have linked accountability, especially transfer rates, to funding. Altogether, the Legislature has linked about $100 million a year in community college grants to performance standards that include transfer rates.

The issue has become so delicate that Nussbaum struggles with what to call the schools with weak postings. Low-transfer campuses? Transfer-impaired?

“We don’t want to say, ‘You’re bad. Now we’re going to put you in the press as a low-transfer school,’ ” Nussbaum said.

Transfer Rating Process a Point of Contention

The chancellor’s task has been further complicated because no one can agree on rating criteria for transfers--or even whether there should be such a process. The state formula includes more than sheer percentages of students accepted at a four-year university. It also factors in such measurements as the driving distance from a two-year school to the nearest four-year campus and the poverty level within a given student population.

“We’re not in the business of chasing money, so [having grant money available is] irrelevant,” said Mission College President Adriana Barrera, whose campus is in Sylmar. “Instead of grading our success on [an outcome] we don’t have complete control over, they should just have consideration for the impact this will have on the local community and distribute the money [equally] among the colleges.”

Barrera and other presidents say that schools like theirs, in high-population areas, are unfairly compared with suburban campuses. Leaders of urban community colleges say they must contend with larger numbers of students from weaker high schools as well as a heavy load of enrollees from immigrant families in which English is a second language.

Statewide last year, about 60% of the 96,500 community college students with enough course credits to transfer enrolled in the California State University or the University of California system. The schools don’t know where the 38,000 other students landed because no statistics are available from private and out-of-state universities.

Also, community colleges point out that different yardsticks are used in transfer surveys by state and federal agencies. The one that left the 14 urban schools at the end of the list included the entire student body when fixing transfer percentages. If it had looked only at the students who completed transferable courses, Mission College would have posted a much better record than did Santa Monica College, whose high placement rate makes it something of a UC farm club.

More than half of Mission’s students who express intent to transfer leave the school with the credentials to gain admission to a university. Just a little more than a third at Santa Monica do.

Community college students become eligible for transfer to the UC and Cal State systems after passing a number of required courses with a grade of C or better.

Santa Monica Sends Most Students in District

The nine-campus Los Angeles Community College District--the state’s largest--has the most at stake in the transfer game. Four of the lowest-ranked transfer colleges are in the district, with the 7,000-student Mission campus finishing last.

Mission was the only Los Angeles school without a transfer counselor until Barrera hired one on a part-time basis earlier this year.

Southwest College near Lennox, another of L.A.'s low-transfer schools, has five full-time counselors for its 6,000 students. And Santa Monica College, which sends more students to UC schools than any other community college in the state, employs 34 full-time and about 65 part-time counselors for its 29,000 students.

“It’s part of the Santa Monica culture to incorporate transfer discussions into all of our counseling,” said Dan Nannini, director of the college’s transfer center. “We’re not always sure if it’s the chicken--our transfer reputation--that brings people or if it’s the egg--students here deciding to transfer after talking it over with counselors.”

To some students, that reputation is enough to pass up closer colleges. Vanessa Burris, 19, is a Santa Monica College freshman from North Hollywood. She drives past three Los Angeles community colleges on her way to school.

“I know I’ll get into UCLA if I graduate from Santa Monica,” she said.

While applauding Santa Monica’s success, USC education professor Linda Serra Hagedorn said it shows how ranking schools--even in a well-intentioned effort to get them funding--can backfire against colleges designated low-transfer.

“I don’t know if it will be worth it to a college to take a few hundred thousand dollars and be identified as a poor performer, when it’s going to make students think the college is no good,” Hagedorn said.

Hagedorn obtained a U.S. Department of Education grant to devise a more sophisticated way of measuring transfer rates for the Los Angeles district. Her rankings will consider factors such as ethnicity, language skills and the success of the high schools that feed the colleges. Those are factors the college presidents say give a more accurate picture of their transfer rates.

Nussbaum’s office has six months to adopt a new statewide formula for the rankings, which is likely to be more favorable to urban districts.

“At the end of this, I still think it’s flawed to try to discern a handful of our schools as the worst in transfers,” Nussbaum said.