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Our Sloppy Local Colleges

June 01, 2004

California's two-year community colleges insist that their students need a unit of physical education in order to transfer to the four-year Cal State system. Kayaking, maybe. Or flamenco dancing. Cal State officials, however, say the university got rid of the PE requirement years ago. And that's just one part of the mess that tens of thousands of students face in trying to negotiate the state's labyrinth of public higher education.

Still-tight funding for the state's colleges and universities brings new pressure to fix a frustratingly wasteful system. A pact between Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and leaders of the state's two university systems -- the University of California and California State University -- would save money by rerouting thousands of eligible applicants to the community colleges for two years, with a guaranteed transfer. At latest count, more than 20,000 of these disappointed students may head to the two-year system in the fall. That could change if Democrats in the Legislature succeed in restoring four-year funds.

In theory, there's nothing wrong with starting at a community college. It's an option many Californians prefer. Students can still get a high-class degree while saving substantial money.

That's the theory. In reality, the governor hasn't promised the community colleges nearly enough to remove previous cuts and take on 20,000-plus new students. Just as troubling, though, is the community colleges' inability to get students ready for transfer in two years.

The financially pressed colleges cut course offerings by about 9% during the last school year. Some students commute between colleges to get seats in required classes. But beyond that, the state's mismatched and arcane credits system keeps students in community colleges too long. Even carrying full course loads, most students take at least 2 1/2 years to transfer -- costing them money, momentum and earning power, and filling a seat that another student could use.

The requirements for the two-year associate's degree differ from the university transfer requirements, for no good reason. Community colleges actually do require PE classes such as kayaking and flamenco, although the four-year schools don't demand PE. What students need is more class offerings and vocational courses. Associate- degree requirements should match transfer requirements. Academic classes should be standardized so they all provide credit toward transfer.

That would mean giving up some local governance -- not a bad thing in light of local decisions having failed to produce a coherent academic system. CSU did its part by recently agreeing to systemwide requirements for each major so students can know what courses they will need in order to transfer and finish a degree in two more years at any Cal State campus.

Yes, the community colleges need more money, but they should also stop manufacturing reasons to keep doing the same old thing when it doesn't work for students or taxpayers.

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