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Math 106, Math 003: same class, different colleges. Why a common number system is elusive

 The entrance to Los Angeles City College.
A new effort is underway to create a broad new system to number community college courses that would be accessible and easily understandable to all students.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

At Pasadena City College, college algebra for STEM majors is labeled Math 003. At Cypress College, it’s Math 141-C and at Napa Valley, it’s Math 106. For anyone hoping to enroll in the same course at Oxnard College, look for Math R115.

Across California’s public community colleges, courses that basically cover the same material and are recognized as being interchangeable in fulfilling requirements for majors and transfers are assigned different course numbers. That process confuses community college students trying to transfer to a four-year university, critics say. Students may not know whether they are taking the right courses and may inadvertently register to repeat a class if they take classes at more than one community college.

Proposals to develop a statewide common numbering system have been debated for nearly three decades. A shadow system already tries to identify similar courses at different colleges, but some say it’s not enough and not easily available to students.

A new effort is underway, however, to create a broad new numbering system that would be accessible and easily understandable to all community college students and cover many more courses. It would ensure that similar courses at any California community college are aligned so they fulfill the same transfer requirements for California State University and the University of California systems. If California adopts the changes, it will join 17 states, including Arizona, Florida and Texas, that have or are developing common course numbers for their lower division courses usually taken in the first two years at public colleges and universities, according to asurvey by the Education Commission of the States.

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A bill in the California Legislature,AB 1111, would require the state’s 116 community colleges to adopt a common numbering system that would cover general education classes and those needed for transfer into various majors at universities. The Assembly’s Higher Education Committee unanimously approved the legislation on April 22. The idea to phase in a new common numbering system by 2025 was among the recommendations of the recentRecovery with Equity report organized by Lande Ajose, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s senior policy advisor for higher education, and the Governor’s Council for Post-Secondary Education.

Backers say the change is an important step to help improve thelow transfer rates: Only 19% of community college students who say they intend to transfer to universities do so within four years. Faculty organizations oppose the change, saying it will divert time and resources from much-needed reforms, such as better financial aid and ensuring students pass their classes, no matter the catalog numbers. Those professors also criticize it for usurping the authority of the 73 districts that run the community colleges.

The bill’s author, Assemblyman Marc Berman (D-Menlo Park), said the “current system is unnecessarily confusing for students and that the differences in course numbers can unintentionally set students back and create a barrier to timely transfer.” Without a common course numbering system, he added, “students are struggling to transfer credits between institutions and plan out a coherent road map to earning their degree.”

The Berman bill faces headwinds as it moves now to the Assembly Appropriations Committee. The statewide community college Academic Senate recently approved aresolution to oppose AB 1111, saying it is not needed, would cost too much and “would create undue and unnecessary difficulties for colleges.” Beyond the changes needed in information systems, schedules and transcripts, more than 150,000 courses would have to be reviewed.

TheFaculty Assn. of California Community Colleges also argues against the plan. FACCC’s president-elect, Wendy Brill-Wynkoop, said she does not think that the number of students taking wrong or repetitive classes is high enough to “warrant the insane amount of time, effort and money” that statewide course numbering would require.

Besides, she and others point to a system that already aims to help students and faculty choose and qualify courses for transfer. That system, calledCourse Identification Numbering or C-ID, works fairly well, they said, although critics said it is very limited in scope and adds another layer of bureaucracy.

With faculty review, C-ID has produced “descriptors” for about 400 types of lower division and transferable courses, detailing the material to be covered and sometimes the texts and amount of student work. Community colleges send in their courses for review in hopes they will be approved and then assigned to one of those descriptors and its numbers in the background. Classes often wind up with two numbers — that of their home college and the C-ID one.

Nearly 22,000 community college classes now fit into one of the descriptors, but there are more than 150,000 courses across the system, officials said.

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More significant, most community college students never see or know about C-ID numbers.

For example, College Composition is ENGL 100 or 110 in the C-ID system. But students statewide see differing course numbers in their home college course catalogs.

Sound complicated? That’s the point for reforming it, according to Jessie Ryan, executive vice president of the Campaign for College Opportunity, a nonprofit that seeks to expand college attendance and success. The complex system, she said, was developed as a tool for counselors and faculty, not student and families.

Berman acknowledges many details remain to be worked out, including cost and timing. But he said he does not think those will be a barrier.

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Gordon is a staff writer for EdSource, a nonprofit journalism website covering education in California.


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