Santa Monica College students walk across the quad at the main campus on Thursday afternoon. (photo by Brandon Wise)

SMC ¬ó A program meant to smooth the transition from community college to the state university system is rolling out slowly in the face of resistance and variations in transfer requirements, according to state officials.

Community colleges have been slow to develop special degree programs called “associate degrees for transfer” that would guarantee acceptance to a California State University, according to a report by the Legislative Analyst’s Office, a non-partisan group that evaluates government programs.

The concept was developed by the Legislature in 2010 to simplify the process to transfer from a community college to a CSU, which can get bogged down by differences in class offerings at the community college level and degree requirements at the CSU level.

At the same time, it is expected to free up seats at the overcrowded community colleges because students will only take as many courses as they needed rather than mistakenly bulk up on classes unnecessary for transfer.

But things haven’t proceeded as quickly as officials at the state level had hoped.

According to the report, most community colleges have fewer than four degrees under the program, despite the fact that the nine CSUs opening their doors to transfers in spring 2013 will only admit students with those degrees.

Santa Monica College is no exception, with only two degrees for transfer in place and a handful in the queue waiting for approval from the Chancellor’s Office.

“The reason we haven’t made a ton of these is that we want them to make sense,” said Daniel Nannini, the director of SMC’s Transfer Center.

Nannini, an outspoken critic of the bill since it was passed, pointed out that while some of the proposed degrees dovetail nicely with existing transfer requirements, others make little sense.

Some of the special degrees actually require more courses than are strictly necessary to get into a CSU in a specific major, and schools were having difficulty identifying classes that would meet the requirements at all 122 community colleges and 23 CSU campuses, which offer different courses under different names.

Also, the degrees don’t work the same for a student trying to transfer to the University of California system, which is a problem for SMC, which claims to transfer the most students to the UC system of any community college in California.

“We transfer as many people into the UC as we had to Cal State,” Nannini said. “Sometimes, to make our degrees compliant, we change our courses. Once we change our courses to the CSU, they’re not transferable to the UC system.”

The degrees consist of 60 units approved by both the Community College Chancellor’s Office and the CSU system.

If a student completes the 60 units, they are guaranteed an associate’s degree and entry into a CSU as a junior in a major that complemented their chosen degree.

Although the process is supposed to create some uniformity and consistency for students, not every degree has to look the same, said Erik Skinner, vice chancellor of programs for the California Community College system.

“Within each discipline, we come up with a structure of lower division and upper division courses that are deemed to be a viable and effective transfer pathway,” Skinner said.

It’s not defined down to individual courses, and colleges have a variety of approved courses that they can include in the associate’s degree for transfer to make it work, Skinner said.

The task at the CSU level, then, is to identify majors at each campus that are similar enough to the approved associate’s degree to accommodate the new student.

“There may not be a specific degree at the community college and the CSU, but there’s a similarity,” said Mike Uhlenkamp, director of media relations at the CSU system.

For instance, a student could get an associate’s degree for transfer in communications and use that as a stepping stone toward earning a public relations or marketing degree at the CSU.

“It means we reviewed it and declared it similar,” Uhlenkamp said.

An associate’s degree for transfer in mathematics might not prepare a student for every discipline of mathematics offered at a specific CSU, said Paul Feist, the vice chancellor for communications with the Chancellor’s Office.

“It is a potential stumbling block into the initiative. We have to work through that,” Feist said.

Officials are now working to increase the number of “similar” degrees available to students so that those taking the degrees for transfer actually have somewhere to go.

“While it’s not 100 percent established yet in terms of all the degrees and similarities, a tremendous amount of work has been done,” Uhlenkamp said.

The law, Senate Bill 1440, doesn’t specify deadlines for how many of the degrees need to be in place and by when, but the Chancellor’s Office took the extra step to determine that each campus should have two available for students by the end of 2011.

By 2014, the Chancellor’s Office expects colleges to have an associate’s degree for transfer for every regular associate’s degree offered as well as each state-approved pathway.

The system just graduated its first batch of students with associate’s degrees for transfer.

Approximately 1,500 students will be eligible to transfer into the CSU system in the fall or spring with these degrees, Feist said.

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