For years, community college students have faced a complex set of academic requirements in planning the leap to a California State University campus.
Confusion and differences between campuses meant some students racked up units they didn't need or had to repeat classes once they transferred.
Now there's a new approach: a 60-unit transfer degree offering a clear, guaranteed path from community college to the CSU.
The transfer associate in arts degree, required under new state legislation, takes effect in fall 2011. Advocates say it should save time and money for students and campuses while also boosting the number of degrees awarded in a state lagging in the production of college-educated workers.
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"The more seats we can make available, the better it is for California and for students," said Benjamin Duran, superintendent/president of Merced College and president of the Central Valley Higher Education Consortium.
Vivian Franco, director of admissions, records and evaluations at Fresno State, said students should benefit from a more structured transfer program.
"When they have a well-defined path toward transfer ... the expectation is that they will progress toward their degree in a smoother fashion," she said.
Through the consortium -- a collaboration of nearly 30 area public and private colleges and universities -- local officials have been working to reconcile differences in both the core general education curriculum and prerequisites for majors.
For example, campuses vary in requirements for humanities and physical education classes, Duran said.
The consortium held a summit this month to discuss those issues and the new transfer degree.
Statewide, the California Community Colleges system and CSU have formed a joint task force to coordinate and shape degrees required under the Student Transfer Achievement Reform Act.
The legislation by Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Pacoima, ensures that community college students can earn associate's degrees and easily transfer as juniors to the CSU if they complete a prescribed 60- unit pattern of general education and major preparation courses.
Generally, the goal is to end confusion by defining and standardizing community college coursework needed for the CSU. While students today have pathways into that four-year system, the prerequisites for each CSU campus can vary widely and force students to repeat coursework once they arrive.
But through a transfer degree, any student planning to study agriculture at Fresno State or math at Sacramento State would follow a well-marked path tailored to those majors.
While the transfer degree is a ticket into the CSU system, students are not guaranteed admission to a specific campus.
Ultimately, the program is expected to generate $160 million in savings and create room for 50,000 more students annually in the two systems.
According to Padilla, only about a quarter of community college students who plan to transfer actually make it to a four-year university.
Those who do generally arrive with extra baggage. According to a state community college study, as many as 50,000 students transfer annually to the CSU system -- most with an average of 80 semester units, even though only 60 are required.
Mark Sanchez, dean of student services, guidance and counseling at Fresno City College, said students may collect additional units in a search for the right academic major. About 650 City College students transferred to a CSU campus last fall.
Some caution against viewing all extra units as wasted.
Fresno State's Franco, for example, said units that aren't accepted still can help meet a degree requirement or better prepare students for a major. The university enrolled about 1,500 new transfer students in fall 2009.
Even so, some extra units result from confusion over transfer requirements or a student's attempt to qualify for multiple campuses.
That is more common now as public universities clamp down on enrollment due to budget problems, said Colleen Moore, a research specialist with the Institute for Higher Education Leadership and Policy at Sacramento State.
"Students can't be sure that they're going to be admitted" to their first choice, she said.
Carissa Moulton, who transferred to Fresno State from Merced College, weighed several options: UC Davis, Chico State and Fresno State.
Moulton, a junior studying ag business, discovered that "every college requires different lower-division classes for your major."
When she transferred this fall, her transcript contained several classes that weren't required at Fresno State.
Moulton, 20, also is repeating six units that she thought didn't transfer. She was frustrated when she learned later that they would.
Moulton said the new transfer degree should ease such confusion. "I'm kind of jealous," she said. Future transfer students "are going to have it a lot easier."