At Transfer Time, Thousands of
California Students Hit a Dead End

At Transfer Time, Thousands of California Students Hit a Dead End

One of the most productive pipelines in California higher education starts with six community colleges spread among the quiet, space-age suburbs of Silicon Valley. Every year the colleges send thousands of their students to the region’s public university, San Jose State.

The community colleges here are a prime source of high-quality students, supplying nearly a third of the graduates at San Jose State, the oldest campus in the California State University system. For generations of local two-year students looking to transfer to a university, San Jose State has been both a top prize and an obvious choice.

Jessica S. Perez, an Evergreen Valley College student, wants to transfer to San Jose State to continue on her path to becoming a therapist. Sharon Grimaldi, a West Valley College student, wants in because it is one of only a few places where she can study speech pathology. In 1970 the future novelist Amy Tan, then a San Jose City College student, transferred to the university to study English and learn how to become a writer.

That pipeline is now closed for at least a semester, part of the fallout from California’s deep fiscal problems. For the first time in memory, the roughly 1,300 community-college students who expected to transfer to San Jose State next spring are having to make other plans.

California’s community-college system is by far the largest college system in the country, with nearly three million students. And transfer students from two-year colleges here play an unusually large role in the state system of higher education. They make up nearly half of those who graduate from Cal State or the University of California with bachelor’s degrees, and they tend to be a more diverse group than their nontransfer counterparts. For decades, regional transfer pipelines in San Jose, Sacramento, San Diego, Long Beach, and elsewhere have been central to the state’s promise of upward mobility.

But California’s budget crisis has damaged those pipelines and exacerbated long-known problems with the transfer process, such as a poor statewide transfer rate and a confusing set of requirements. A landmark came in June when Cal State announced that it would reduce its total enrollment by 40,000 students, or 9 percent, forcing nearly all 23 of its campuses to essentially close admissions during the spring, when transfer students typically arrive.

In the long term, that decision may alter the flow of students among colleges in the state, with unintended consequences for community colleges, private colleges, and the University of California. In the short term, it has made for a brutal summer for community-college students like Ms. Grimaldi and Ms. Perez, who had intended to transfer next spring.

The transfer problems in Silicon Valley are a microcosm of the pressure California’s budget crisis is putting on students: Public colleges in the state plan to cut an estimated 300,000 students from their classrooms during the next year and a half. The decisions Ms. Perez and her fellow students make in response will help determine the ultimate direction of higher education in the state.

Option 1: Stay in 2-Year College

Ms. Perez, 22, fell in love with psychology during her first psych class at Evergreen Valley College. “Everything that you learn is crazy,” she says: the stages of sleep, the ways that a child’s brain develops. Last year, her second on the campus, she started counseling preteens at a local clinic, and she sees herself becoming a therapist.

Ms. Perez had been in regular contact with Evergreen counselors about transferring to San Jose State. But she didn’t learn about the enrollment restrictions until June, when she was browsing online and was about to apply for the spring semester. Her first reaction was disbelief.

“We had done everything,” she says. “I was ready. We had heard talk about enrollment [issues], but I didn’t really believe it, because I was hoping. I was thinking, I want to transfer. I need to get out of here.”

At first her counselor told her to consider a second choice, Cal State-East Bay, about 30 miles north of San Jose, so she sent in an application. But a week later, a representative of the university e-mailed back to say that it, too, had closed its admissions for the spring.

The only option for Ms. Perez is to stay at Evergreen for an extra eight months, she says, even though there is not much more she can accomplish there. She called San Jose State to ask if she could take any more classes at Evergreen that would count toward her degree, but was told no, she says. Next semester she plans to take a Spanish class and reapply to San Jose State for the fall of 2010.

Having students like Ms. Perez hanging around is a major problem for the community colleges, which are seeing a burst of demand even as they cut courses and fire part-time instructors in response to cuts in state support. The demand is so high at neighboring De Anza College that a record 8,400 students, a third of the student population, are on a waiting list for at least one class this fall, and 2,300 students—about one in 10—have not been able to get into any classes at all.

That means students who are unable to transfer out take up spots that other students might need to complete their own transfer requirements. Those students, in turn, may stick around longer, preventing others from enrolling. Some higher-education observers call this phenomenon “the cascade”: Enrollment cuts in one system result in a chain of displaced students elsewhere.

Brian Murphy, president of De Anza College, says he fears that current sophomores at his campus might be held up by students unable to transfer. That reality is lost on state lawmakers, he says: “The system is reasonably fine-tuned, and I don’t think Sacramento has any understanding of how delicate some of these relationships are.”

Ms. Perez now worries that she may not get in when she reapplies in the fall. A representative from San Jose State recently met with Evergreen students to talk about admissions, but Ms. Perez no longer trusts the process.

“He was like, ‘Oh, don’t worry,’” she says. “You can’t tell us, ‘Oh, don’t worry’ if you’re just going to let us down again.”

Option 2: Go Private

San Jose State is on a short list of public universities in Northern California that offer a major in speech pathology, and it is the best option for Ms. Grimaldi, a second-year student at West Valley College. The program is not especially competitive, and student advisers told her that if she completed the requirements for her intended major and kept her grade-point average above 2.0, her admission would be a lock.

The bad news came in June, in an e-mail message from West Valley’s transfer adviser: San Jose State was out.

East Bay, another university that offers speech pathology, initially encouraged Ms. Grimaldi to apply for the spring of 2010. But then “they started to get indecisive,” she says. The university hedged and offered her an application for summer instead; a few weeks later, even that option was gone.

Staying in community college was not an option, she says, because she is tired of waiting. “I’ve taken everything that I could,” she says.

Like many two-year-college students, Ms. Grimaldi is not able to easily pick up and move to another part of California or to another state. She is undergoing jaw surgery next year and needs to stay close to her dentists, and her parents couldn’t afford to support her away from home, she says.

So she chose what is becoming an increasingly attractive option for frustrated transfer students: a private college.

Many two-year students in California are unable to afford private colleges, but for those who can, the recession has made private institutions look better in comparison with the state’s public universities. Both Cal State and the University of California are expected to respond to cuts in state support by raising tuition more than 30 percent, narrowing the cost gap between public and private colleges.

Ms. Grimaldi chose Notre Dame de Namur University, a Roman Catholic institution in Belmont, 30 minutes up the freeway from San Jose State. Notre Dame does not offer speech pathology, “so I’ll have to give up that dream for now,” she says. But she is happy to leave the Cal State system behind.

“I understand that it’s not their fault, and there’s nothing they can really do at this point,” she says. But “I can’t just wait.”

She will have plenty of company at Notre Dame: Officials there say its enrollment of transfer students from two-year colleges, while still small, is growing quickly during the state’s downturn.

Rejeetha M. Gort, director of admissions, says the university hopes to see at least a 6- to 7-percent increase in enrollment next spring, driven in large part by students who were shut out of Cal State. Notre Dame is making a big marketing push for those students, she says, holding specialized open houses for the first time and advertising heavily in the student newspapers of Silicon Valley community colleges.

“We’re letting them know that we may not be a CSU or UC, but we’re still taking students in for the spring,” Ms. Gort says.

Officials at several other private colleges in the state report similar numbers and say they are happy to serve the students shut out of the public systems. At National University, which enrolls about 24,000 students at more than a dozen campuses throughout California, officials expect enrollment of transfer students to increase by 3 to 5 percent this year.

But others warn that while private colleges will see increased interest, they will be unable to handle the hundreds of thousands of students turned away from public institutions, which enroll about 85 percent of the state’s college students.

“Most of the privates don’t have unused capacity,” says Patrick M. Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, based in San Jose. “Anyone who thinks that’s going to provide substantial relief is badly mistaken. That’s no knock on the privates, it’s just a capacity issue.”

Option 3: Drop Out, for Now

Edesa Betkolia, a communications student at West Valley, is proud of her progress there but angry that her work has been interrupted. “I struggled between work, family, friends, and school. I somehow managed it. I took winter-session classes, I took summer-session classes. I overloaded. And all of a sudden [San Jose State] is just not accepting any students.”

Cal State’s restrictions have already led her to take classes that will not help her transfer, including a math class this semester that she doesn’t need. Reaching for a campus at the University of California, which is planning for 500 more transfer students this year while it cuts freshman enrollment, would be too expensive, she believes.

If nothing changes, Ms. Betkolia says she will probably drop out of school in the spring to work full time, and then apply to San Jose State again for the fall of 2010. “I honestly hate that. I’d rather be a student full time until I get my degree, and not have to work,” she says. “But I guess that if there’s really no other option, I have to.”

California college officials say they don’t know how many students will respond to roadblocks in the state’s transfer process by simply dropping out. But given the state’s continued budget troubles, they say it is likely that thousands more spots will be lost before any are regained, intensifying the cascade of displaced students and denying many students a chance to graduate.

Officials and researchers warn that leaving college, even with a plan to come back, can be problematic for a student who has already completed two years of transfer requirements. Many would-be transfer students must return to community college to complete more courses, and they no longer get high priority when signing up for classes that they missed.

Judy C. Miner, president of Foothill College, a two-year institution, recommends to students that they continue to take courses even if they are ready to transfer. “There’s a lot to be said for continuous enrollment,” she says. When students drop out, “it is so easy to just be attracted to other ways of spending your time.”

Ms. Betkolia says the most frustrating part has been dealing with the “constant rejection” as she learned that Cal State campuses would no longer be considering applications. In waiting for San Jose State to open up again, she says, “you kind of just gradually waste your time.”

By Josh Keller

The Chronicle of Higher Education
October 5, 2009

Cited by Paul Krugman in The New York Times, “The Uneducated American,” October 8, 2009