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UC Berkeley Press Release

Study finds early difficulty for community college students

– A new report by Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE) finds that six in 10 students who enter the California community college system as freshmen with high school diplomas and aspirations to transfer to four-year institutions drop out or lower their academic sights after just one semester. The report recommends increasing support for these students.

"This analysis suggests that a focus on access (to higher education) is necessary, but more preparation for the transition from high school to college is essential to achieve the goal of a more educated population and workforce," concludes the study, "Beyond Access: How the First Semester Matters for Community College Students' Aspirations and Persistence," that is authored by Anne Driscoll, a demographer and PACE researcher based at the University of California, Davis.

PACE, an independent policy research center based at UC Berkeley and Stanford University, followed students ages 17-20 who entered the state's community college system for the first time in the fall of 1998. In the six-year period following their enrollment, the data provided by the California Community College Chancellor's Office showed that, overall, 32.5 percent of these students ultimately transferred to four-year schools that included public and private institutions within and outside of the Golden State.

The study found that a quarter of the community college freshmen who had high school diplomas and cited transferring to a four-year school to earn a bachelor's degree as a primary educational goal did not return to school for the spring 1999 semester. Nearly two-thirds did not re-enroll the following school year, either. Of the students who did return in spring 1999, only four in 10 still held transferring to a four-year school as a primary goal, the study found. Students who ultimately transferred to four-year schools within six years of their first semester reached 41.3 percent.

"This report suggests that the first semester in college is a pivotal moment in students' academic careers," said David N. Plank, executive director of PACE.

The report says that students who drop out may have overestimated their level of preparedness for college-level work and performed less well in their classes than they expected, which led them to become discouraged and to lower their academic sights.

"If we can find ways to support successful transitions for entering students by providing more guidance and academic support, we can increase the odds that they will stay in school and complete degrees," Plank said. "This could spell big dividends for community college students as well as for the state's workforce, which by the year 2020 will be characterized by more jobs that require some college, or a college degree, than jobs that do not."

California has 2.5 million students in its community colleges - more than any other state. At the same time, California ranks below the national average and below similar states in the proportion of full-time, post-secondary students who earn four-year college degrees. The state spends more than $73,000 per degree earned, which exceeds the national average and spending in most comparable states.

Improving persistence and eventual academic success among the largest group of post-secondary students in California will both save taxpayers' money and ultimately result in more taxpayers and a stronger economy, says the report.

Most of the students with high school diplomas who aspired to transfer to four-year schools took transfer-eligible courses in their first semester of community college, PACE found, and white and Asian students were more likely than their black and Latino counterparts to take such classes.

Overall, students earning at least a 3.0 grade point average in those classes were more likely to persist with their schooling than were students not doing as well, according to the study. A grade point average of 3.0, a "B" average, is a minimum requirement for transfer.

Those who took four transfer-eligible courses their first semester earned better grades than students who took fewer, and students who took five such courses had still higher grade point averages, according to the study. Students who carried full course loads of transfer-eligible classes were more likely to transfer to four-year schools, a pattern that PACE found constant across all racial and ethnic categories.

Therefore, the report recommends, policymakers should consider offering more remedial courses or tutoring and other services to help students as early as possible take as many transfer-eligible classes as they can.

The study also found that the community college freshmen who did not return for the spring 1999 semester were the least likely to transfer within six years. Only one in five blacks and Latinos who didn't return for the second semester went on to transfer, while one-third of whites and four in 10 Asians did.

The report said that students' dedication to transferring to a four-year school is more important than how consistently they strive for that goal.

Half of the students who returned to community college and maintained their transfer aspirations went on to transfer, and four in 10 students who came back in spring 1999 with lowered goals ultimately transferred.

PACE reports that 44 percent of white students, about half of Asians, and three in 10 blacks and Latinos in the study transferred to four-year schools during the six-year review.

The report noted a lack of data on students' financial resources, although such information is often related to race and ethnicity. Financial resources represent a more significant factor for community college students who tend to come from more modest socio-economic backgrounds than for students beginning their college careers at four-year institutions.

The report is available online at the PACE Web site at http://pace.berkeley.edu/reports/PB.07-2.pdf.