At Southwestern College six is the new two.
Only 40 percent of first-time students graduate with a degree or reach transfer level within a six-year period at SWC, according to state figures. That means at least 60 percent of them do not even reach transfer level. The state average is 47 percent.
Research shows that California community college students can get seriously bogged down. A “two-year degree” has largely become mythology.
California graduates 39 percent of its bachelor degree students within four years, slightly lower than the national average of 39.8 percent.
Many variables go into student success (or failure) and experts argue about which of them is powering this national phenomenon. Many students blame math.
Elijah Hawley, 21, a mechanical engineering major, is in his third year at SWC, one more year than he had originally planned. Hawley said he took five AP classes in high school and had a 3.24 weighted GPA.
“But since I hadn’t been in a math class for over an entire year, I was a little bit rusty (for the placement test),” he said.
Hawley is one of the 79 percent of students who do not pass the placement test when entering SWC and have to take remedial courses before they can take transferable credits in math or English.
Dr. Michael Odu, dean of the School of Mathematics, Science and Engineering, said he was concerned with the rate of students held back by math.
“If you come here and test into remedial, you need to take like four different (math) courses before you can to get to transfer level courses,” he said. “If everything goes well, that is two years before (reaching) college level. How many of us have the resilience to want to hang around?”
According to the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office Student Success Scorecard, 32.9 percent of SWC students placed into remedial math, 50 percent are placed in remedial English. Only 35 percent of students placed in a remedial class graduates or transfers within six years.
Hawley took algebra his freshman year of high school, and algebra II and math analysis before graduating. Hawley is in elementary algebra, his second SWC math class. He needs two more before he can transfer.
“Everything that was presented to me, I already knew,” he said. “It felt like a waste of time, a waste of money and I could have been doing something better. I show up like half the time for my math class, but I’m still one of the highest in the class.”
Apart from a warning to the whole class about being dropped for being absent, he said his instructor has never talked to him about his absences. He has missed class twice since the warning.
Vice President of Academic Affairs Kathy Tyner told the governing board that SWC needs to decrease the number of steps to transfer.
“Every time you go from one class to the next sequential class, there is a hole in the bucket and you lose students,” she said. “Even if they are successful in the previous class, when they go to the next class, not all of them register.”
This fall SWC will merge two of the remedial math courses and offer an alternative to algebra for students who are not science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) majors. Four sections of Math 57 will be offered, the first of two statistics courses known as gateway classes. The changes are meant to shorten the time it takes students to transfer and to triple the success rate. The second course will be offered in Spring 2017. Other states have been adapting to this model for some years now, said Odu, but the UC system was a late adopter.
Hawley said he has been supporting himself since he graduated high school. He works part-time and balances 11 units. He said the ideal number of units he would take is 15, the amount required to graduate on time.
Dr. Jonathan King, dean of Counseling and Student Support Programs, said some community college students do not have the luxury of focusing solely on their studies because they have families to take care of, jobs or other distractions.
“Our students have a hard time, not only transferring, but trying to stay in college and even get to the point of transferring,” said King.
Hawley said he did not have any financial aid his first semester and paid for classes out of his own pocket. By the second semester he had heard about the Board of Governors Fee Waiver and used his money for other expenses. He now works part-time and takes more classes than he did at the beginning.
At SWC the average student attempts an average of 8.4 units per semester, but only completes an average of 6.3, according to the SWC Fact Book. Hawley said admissions and counseling at SWC have not been helpful.
“My first semester was kind of hectic, just trying to figure it out all on your own and over time, through multiple people, instead of being directed the right way by the first person,” he said. “I feel like most of the staff should be better prepared to help students who don’t know what they are doing when they first get here. (They need) to be more helpful and lead students down the right path instead of saying, ‘Just go to Webadvisor, everything you need to know is there.’”
“We have this assumption that technology is everything,” he said. “It’s not everything. I’m sorry. When you put a student in front of technology they just ‘click, click.’ When you give them someone — a person — they know you care about them, their future. Have them come up with a plan so they know what is ahead. A lot of times students don’t have that opportunity. They make the assumption they know what do and they’re stuck here and they do not know what to do.”
Hawley took several courses in the past three years, but said he later realized that some of them were not necessary to transfer. Even though an associate degree requires 60 units, the average associate degree graduate in the U.S. accumulates 81 credits in community college. Bachelor’s degree graduates, who require a standard of 120 credits, accumulate an average of 133 credits.
King said many of these students are the first of their family to go to college and do not understand the process.
“Some come from households that don’t know what you need to know to navigate to stay in college, so they are up against a lot of different circumstances,” he said. “The most important thing for these kids is mentoring and more hands on with the counseling and faculty. That link with the counselors and the faculty is very important.”
With three semesters under his belt, Hawley made an appointment with a counselor. For personal reasons he had to cancel his appointment, he said, and never rescheduled. He said the counseling office did not reach out to him, so he bought the college catalog, went through it and found the courses he needed to take.
“I don’t need to talk to anyone anymore,” said Hawley. “I’ve helped myself more than they’ve helped me. I believe I am doing it the right way and if it ends up not being the right way, I can’t blame anyone but myself since there was no help there in the beginning. After I figured it out, it has just been me and myself the remainder of the time.”
Once he passes all the courses he needs for transferring, other challenges await. Odu said local universities prioritize the admission of higher-paying out-of-state and international students to generate revenue.
“There’s the business component of it we don’t want to address,” he said. “Colleges are now hiring business-minded vice presidents for their VPs, and their presidents are now often from the corporate world, not from education world. They run the schools as a business. The dynamic is changing. When you start hiring these business experts, you are telling us that this is a business model now.”
A critical state audit on the UC system was released in March that accused the system of violating its mission statement to serve the state by educating Californians. UC President Janet Napolitano defended the increase in higher-paying out-of-state students and foreign students.
“UC took bold action to control costs, remain affordable to California residents and protect quality during the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression,” she said.
In the last 10 years, foreign student enrollment at UCSD has increased 1,307 percent, while local student enrollment has increased 26 percent. Foreign and out-of-state students outnumber San Diegans three to one. Some UC campuses are nearly 40 percent non-Californians.
Odu said the strategy is destructive.
“If you need money, you have foundations and you have the state, but what they are saying I really don’t buy that,” said Odu. “It doesn’t make any sense. What happens to those students? It discourages the students from even moving on, because they are stuck here they have nowhere to go and they are funding the (universities with their taxes). There is no justification for that. They can come up with whatever excuse they like, but there really is no justification for that.”
In an effort to help local students, the California State University system began a campaign called “A Degree with a Guarantee” promising students who applied with an Associate Degree for Transfer (ADT) would be guaranteed a spot in the CSU system. California increased the amount of ADTs from 735 to 6,901 within three years. SWC had the largest increase at 138 percent during 2014-15. Southwestern’s efforts will be recognized by the Campaign for College Opportunity in Sacramento on June 2.
In fall 2015, 180 ADT applicants were accepted into SDSU, but the remaining 297 that applied were redirected to other less-crowded CSU campuses across the state, most of which accept fewer out-of-state students.
Nicholas Nguyen, the SWC Transfer Center Coordinator, said he is concerned that four-year universities are not admitting students from their service areas even if the students fulfill the requirements.
“If you apply with a 3.9 GPA and are not accepted, it’s not your fault, you’ve done everything you can as a student and (SWC) as a school,” he said. “ I think what happens is that when their students take longer to graduate and it created a trickle effect on transfer students because if they were able to graduate their students quickly, they would be able to accept more transfer students. Our students tend to be a lot more prepared, they have completed more classes. They are doing well, but as long as the university does not open up more spaces, the number of students will not improve drastically.”
Odu said four-year universities have a big advantage.
“(Universities) are doing a better job, let’s be honest,” he said. “But the four-year colleges only admit the best because it is a competition. If you have the best, I expect you to be doing more.”
USD has the highest percentage of four-year graduates in San Diego at 67 percent, followed by PLNU at 59 percent, UCSD at 57 percent, the Art Institute of SD at 47 percent and SDSU at 29 percent.