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Chutes or Ladders? Strengthening California Community College Transfer So More Students Earn the Degrees They Seek

In the classic game of Chutes and Ladders, the player can see square 100—the finish line—but it is not easy to get there. The player may climb one ladder only to land on the wrong spot and be sent spiraling down a chute. In the game, players are aiming for the blue ribbon on square 100, but for students enrolling in college, the prize is a bachelor’s degree, and the key number is the 120 credits needed to get there.

Like Chutes and Ladders players, California community college students who want to transfer to a four-year college or university are trying to make progress, but one bad roll of the dice can set them back several turns.

The California Community Colleges (CCC) are central to the economic strength and social mobility of California and its residents. They serve the majority of undergraduates in California. Each year, over 2 million students attend one of the 116 community colleges across the state, including the online campus—Cal Bright. In 2019-2020, these students included almost a half million first-time freshmen seeking to earn an associate degree and/or transfer to a four-year university. Unfortunately, if past data trends persist, only 2.5 percent of them will transfer in two years, and fewer than a quarter (23 percent) will transfer in four.

In this report, we examine the ways in which the transfer pathway is central to remedying racial inequity in higher education access and success and to producing the educated workforce California needs. We document the impact of the Associate Degree for Transfer (ADT) on improving the transfer pathway—the extent of its reach, notable variance by students’ race/ethnicity, and differences in access by college campus and major, both at California’s community colleges and at the state’s four-year universities. Finally, we offer recommendations to policymakers and campus leaders for removing remaining obstacles for students in the transfer process and for strengthening the ADT pathway and ensuring it becomes the preferred degree pathway for California’s transfer students.

Watch the webinar recording