Almanac

Cover Story - August 11, 2010

Going the distance

With hard times and shrinking UC and CSU enrollments, is community college a viable alternative for the first two years?

by Dave Boyce

Introductory chemistry for freshman science majors at the University of California at Berkeley enrolls about 1,000 students who take turns filling up a 350-seat lecture hall for the three sections of the class, according to a chemistry department spokesperson. At UCLA, the chemistry lecture hall seats 300.

Study the same essential course material at the hilltop campus of Canada College, located in Woodside and Redwood City, and you will likely have 35 classmates, and you're less likely to have to give up home cooking and your own bed.

You'll also pay less, much less. A school year at Canada runs around $750 for a full-time student versus an average of $20,800 at California State University or $27,000 at UC for a student living on campus, according to spokesmen for the CSU and UC systems.

Textbooks are another $300 to $600, Canada officials added, but that cost can be cut by renting the books or, for some classes, borrowing them from the library. Students can always sell them back to the bookstore at the semester's end.

There are drawbacks. When class is over at Canada, you don't walk out into a vibrant youthful stream of several thousand peers from everywhere on the planet walking in every direction at once on a campus steeped in tradition. Nor is the campus situated in cosmopolitan Berkeley or Los Angeles.

At Canada, you'll have a bird's-eye and often windswept view of the Bay Area. And you can approach the transition to college work over time and with ample personal attention rather than total immersion in a new, complex and challenging milieu.

Community colleges have their own milieus, of course. They're a way station for many of the state's nurses, firefighters and law enforcement officers, as well as many whose lives don't readily line up with a college education, much less with plans to transfer to a four-year school.

Alma Nunez, 23, says she came to the U.S. from Mexico as an infant with her parents, neither of whom graduated from high school. She is bilingual, a graduate of Burlingame High School, has been a community college student since 2005, and plans to major in linguistics at UC Berkeley or UC Santa Cruz.

"I was not ready for college either academically or mentally (and) it was very much hit and miss. I barely knew what a community college was at all," she says. "I was very close to joining the Marines because that was the only way to (get training as) a linguist."

That path closed when she learned that a linguistics career in the military requires U.S. citizenship, and she is a permanent resident (she has a green card).

"Once I got in here (at Canada), that really opened up a lot of possibilities," she says. "I took a course in linguistics here and I found out I'm good at it. I like it."

Alvin Sumo, a 24-year-old Canada student from Liberia, says he plans to attend UC Berkeley as a pre-med student. And the fact that Berkeley has no collaborative guaranteed admission program? "It all depends on me," he told The Almanac.

He says he plans to transfer from Canada with an associate's degree as a medical assistant, allowing him to earn money in a field connected with his major.

It may be tough getting in to UC. Due to ongoing and deep budget cuts, the UC system will admit 20,000 fewer students in September, says UC system spokesman Ricardo Vasquez. Meanwhile, the CSU system is planning to cut enrollment by 40,000 over the next two years, according to a CSU analysis.

Transferring in

Transfer student: a tainted pair of words among those who slight community colleges. You didn't have the right stuff for four years at UC or CSU, so you're making do with two.

Maybe there's something to that, maybe there isn't. Degree certificates for four-year students and transfer students are indistinguishable, on paper and to potential employers. Transfer students also graduate from UC schools at a rate of 85 percent, slightly higher than the 82 percent of four-year students, Mr. Vasquez says.

Transfers to a UC or a CSU campus after two years as a full-time community college student is common and often seamless if you have a B average and have earned 60 qualified credits. Admission for Canada students can be almost guaranteed to a UC campus or to CSU East Bay, CSU Monterey, or two local Catholic universities (Santa Clara and Notre Dame de Namur), says Soraya Sohrabi, Canada's supervisor of transfer services.

Transferring students are "more prepared, have more understanding, are more mature and are more focused on the academic programs," Ms. Sohrabi says.

Transfer students make up about 30 percent of UC graduates and 60 percent of CSU grads, says Erik Skinner, a vice chancellor in for the California Community College system.

The two UC campuses that don't participate in the guarantee program, in Berkeley and Los Angeles, are open to transfer students. Of the transfer students who applied in 2009-10, the two schools admitted 25 percent and 31 percent, respectively, Mr. Vasquez says. Of high school seniors who applied, the schools admitted 24.5 percent and 21 percent.

Some transfer students had to complete "very, very specific patterns of courses," Mr. Vasquez says, but added that this path to a UC school "is a very, very important door that needs to be kept open. For many students, this is a very cost effective way of getting a degree."

If a student is going to drop out from a UC school, it tends to happen in freshman and sophomore years, Mr. Vasquez added.

There are risks in starting at a two-year school, too, according to Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of FinAid.org and a regular financial aid commentator for major media outlets, including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

A September 2008 study from the National Bureau for Economic Research, cited on FinAid.org, showed that students nationwide who start at two-year colleges are 14.5 percent less likely than four-year-college students to earn a bachelor's degree.

Transfer students also tend to earn less, but not much less. A March 2009 study for the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis showed that students who start in a two-year school earn about $2,268 less per year than their counterparts who attended a four-year school, Mr. Kantrowitz says.

That gap may be meaningless since four-year students tend to graduate with more debt. A typical graduate who transferred in owes about 29 percent less, on average, than a student who attended for all four years, Mr. Kantrowitz says.

Finding classes

Admission anxiety. Today, it's a problem even at the state's 110 community colleges.

One half of new students are unable to find the classes they want, in part because priority is given to returning students, says Erik Skinner, vice chancellor of the California community college system.

Asked if families should feel anxious about the educational path after high school, Mr. Skinner did not pooh-pooh it. "It's a concerning time," he says. "I think it's a major policy issue that the state is working with right now. These are challenging times for California, dark times, so we need to find a way to steer through it."

Rising costs and shrinking access to classes "is something quite foreign," he says. "It doesn't seem like this is the great state of California, that someone would be wanting to pursue a higher education and be shut out. We're going to lead our state down the wrong path if we don't do something to support education."

While public funds now have many claimants, "I think people (at one time) saw the issue of human infrastructure as being critical to the future of the state," Mr. Skinner says. "This is the cost to progress. It's how we're going to grow and become a more prosperous state. I think that view of investment for the future is notably lacking right now."

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