As state policy makers and higher education leaders seek to build a skilled and upwardly mobile workforce, we have increasingly focused on transfer policy. Like the term “transfer” itself, those policies tend to focus on student movement across institutions, attempting to safeguard credit loss at each transition point. While this is important, it also reinforces approaches that center the institutions and not the students. Moving forward, it is also increasingly important that we expand our focus to ensure that all relevant learning is represented in the awarded credits and that every one of these credits counts in the transfer process toward a degree or credential.
Here at the California Community Colleges, our Vision for Success has had an intentional focus on increasing transfer by 35 percent. We have reached that goal well in advance of our five-year target in part because of the significant increase in the number of students who earn associate degrees and associate degrees for transfer. Yet we know we cannot stop there. Looking through an equity lens — which is how we are looking at every policy and practice these days — we have identified continued disparities in transfer outcomes.
The data show, for example, that barriers to transfer are producing a much lower rate of transfer to California State University and the University of California for Black students than our student population over all. We have made few gains in transfer outcomes for Black students since 2014, and transfer rates for Hispanic students have increased only two percentage points.
A New Vision for a Scaffolded, Student-Centered Learning Journey
These inequitable experiences for students, even in the face of systemwide improvements — which are similar nationwide — are what command our attention. In response to these and other persistent opportunity gaps, a long-overdue national reckoning with racial injustice, the global pandemic and widening income disparities, we are elevating student-centered approaches that focus on learning as an ongoing, scaffolded journey. This requires that we think beyond a narrow view of “transfer” to address the full range of complex learner journeys in order to ensure our students are able to apply their learning toward degrees and credentials with labor market value.
Our students are navigating off-ramps and on-ramps between learning and work more often than in the last century, when the linear school-to-work trajectory reigned. At the California Community Colleges, we are doing more to meet students where they are, centering not only our enrolled students, especially Black and brown students, but also optimizing meaningful on-ramps to education for the 6.8 million adults in our communities without postsecondary degrees whom we may have failed in the past.
Honoring Learning Outside the Traditional Classroom
To fully scaffold lifelong learning, we’re expanding ways to offer credit for college-level knowledge and skills, saving students time and money toward their goals. This is a new approach to credit applicability for our system, but it is necessary to close opportunity gaps and increase transfer and credential completion, and to help California recover with equity.
We are substantially shifting approaches and practices to those that center students and honor their contributions, responsibilities and achievements outside the traditional classroom and traditional college setting. Consistent with national trends, more than 40 percent of our 2.1 million students are over the age of 25. Many of these students come to us with industry credentials and workplace training, as graduates of public service academies, and with specialized military training. Our credit for prior learning policy and emerging competency-based education pilots aim to reform the previous approach to granting credit, which has historically been experienced by students as ad hoc and faculty-centered, causing it to feel subjective and inequitable. Our new approach systematizes how we formally recognize and build upon students’ knowledge attainment — regardless of where it occurred — and provides greater consistency and transparency for students.
Dismantling the Obstacle Course to Lifelong Learning
Research demonstrates that students experience transfer as a confounding maze. We are systematizing support through Guided Pathways for students’ growth and development and dismantling the obstacle course that sends students back to the starting line each time they enter a new institution of higher education. This requires collaborating not only with employers and other places where students attain knowledge, but also with our four-year postsecondary partners in California to ensure that our approach to enabling lifelong learning will not handicap students when they transfer, given our system’s primary mission.
Our faculty are participating in professional development to ensure that prior learning assessments are rigorous and equitable. As students with credit from prior learning are far more likely to complete a postsecondary credential, we are standardizing credit awards as much as possible across colleges for common prior learning experiences like military training and industry credentials and connecting credit to courses. We are investing in a pilot network of colleges to support their implementation of direct assessment competency-based education in credit pathways to enable students to demonstrate mastery and progress outside the confines of traditional academic calendars. Pilot programs will offer pathways from information technology to business administration to early childhood education and will be designed to both ensure transfer options and meet workforce needs, advancing economic mobility and future stability for Californians.
Bridging Learners’ Academic and Nonacademic Worlds
Outside of these new approaches to credit applicability, we are also reforming other ways to serve students holistically, helping them bridge their academic and nonacademic worlds to enable lifelong learning. We are delivering courses in new formats and modalities to better accommodate the busy lives of our students, including those who juggle work and caregiving responsibilities. For example, several of our colleges are offering accelerated courses that run in half the time compared to traditional semesters, including at consistent times across semesters. At the same time, our California Virtual Campus Online Education Initiative is increasing access to online courses and full degree pathways that will extend the flexibility of hybrid and distance learning beyond the pandemic.
Scaffolding learner journeys also requires that we pay attention to the nonacademic factors that can derail students from their educational goals. Across our system, we’re advancing one-stop shop models that integrate supports like childcare, tutoring and counseling. We’re also advocating for financial aid reform that better covers the full cost of attendance to help more students attend full-time.
There remains much work to be done, but by elevating student-centered approaches that honor learning outside the classroom, reducing the obstacles students face and flexibly and innovatively delivering education to meet and support learners where they are, we are striving to transform our institutions and close equity gaps. More importantly, we are signaling to every student that their worlds outside our classrooms matter and that we recognize the real meaning and value of their skills. We are being guided in these efforts by the central lesson we’ve learned in making our system more student-centered and equitable — in our work reforming assessment and placement and our work reforming transfer pathways, for example — that students deserve fair credit for their work and fair recognition of their skills. Always.