The Steps to Success for the College Transfer Student

By Elizabeth LaScala, PhD

A student recently wrote to me. Here is one paragraph from her email communication:

“My family can’t afford to send me straight to a 4 year college. My dream is to attend a community college and transfer to UC San Diego. What are my chances of filling all the requirements, and holding down a part-time job and still transfer in 2 years? I am willing to live at home. The state budget cuts to public education have hit harder in some areas than others, but I hear many stories about students not being able to get classes. I know getting the right advice at the right time is very important.”

Unfortunately, this student’s predicament is not unique. A slice of historical context helps. The Master Plan for Higher Education, ratified in 1960, created the community college system and its accompanying transfer option to a 4 year state university. As designed in 1960 the system rested heavily on a healthy transfer function between the California Community Colleges (CCCs)—112 state-wide accredited 2-year colleges—and California’s public four-year institutions. The role of the CCCs remains critical to a healthy transfer path to California’s public four-year institutions—nine University of California campuses (UCs) and 23 California State Universities (CSUs). However, the demographics and fiscal realities of the state have changed dramatically. Students who plan to attend a community college and utilize the transfer path must bravely confront a new world.

The following recommendations can help high school students plan how to use the transfer path successfully.

1. Don’t Make Community College an Afterthought: The community college option should not be a late addition to your college admissions plan. You should create a written game plan for the (hopefully) 2-year transfer path. Although the plan will likely change based on the availability of classes, schedule conflicts or a change in a student’s academic goals, having a plan ensures you get and stay on track.

2. Go Beyond Your High School’s Requirements for Graduation: Earning a grade of ‘B’ and preferably ‘A’ in UC/CSU required coursework in high school increases your chances of passing the required assessment exams that place you in college English and math coursework in a community college environment. That could mean skipping over remedial classes, which have no transfer credits.

3. Participate in the Early Assessment Program: The testing is offered to juniors at their high schools. Through the assessment, California juniors have the opportunity to measure their English and math skills towards the end of 11th grade. Juniors can assess their college ‘readiness’ and plan their final year in high school to take coursework, which will strengthen their ability to be successful in the CCC system.

4. Identify Your Transfer Path in High School: At the end of your junior year or early in your senior year begin to research both the CCCs as well as the 4-year public or private universities you are interested in attending to complete your degree. Visit the campuses and prior to the visit be sure to make appointments with the transfer counseling departments. Then, really zero in on the schools that make it to your final list.

5. Discover Articulation Agreements: Most CCCs have what are called “articulation agreements” often with both private and public 4-year schools. These matriculation agreements specify the required general education courses and prerequisites for your intended major. Select classes with your articulation plan clearly in mind. Since universities, especially state schools, can and do change their transfer requirements, staying current on the changes is your responsibility. The state’s budgetary challenges can make the transfer path a moving target. Your best bet is to check your articulation agreement criteria at and take charge of it. You can identify a counselor you can work with at the CCC, but some are very informed while others not so much. If you find a knowledgeable counselor, stay in touch by meeting early and often. If you do not have luck at first, try, try again.

6. Be prepared to enroll in classes at more than one CCC: Despite the inconvenience, you may have to take required, transferrable coursework at more than one CCC in order to get the classes you need to move forward along the transfer path.

7. Take A College Success Class: Learning how to balance academics with the other obligations in your life is critical. Taking a college student success course at a CCC which offers one during the summer before you start classes will focus your attention on the development of an academic plan with associated milestones. These classes are becoming more popular, and early research indicates students who take them are more likely to transfer successfully.

8. Your Grade Point Average (GPA) Is the Best Predictor of Success: Just as in high school, your GPA (in classes that have transferrable credits) is the single most important factor in the transfer admissions decision. Study hard and get tutoring help early. Don’t wait to fail or drop a class; that only delays your transfer plans.

9. Don’t Let Life Get in The Way: Students who can attend CCC full-time are more likely to earn a degree. Try to build the rest of your life around your academic priorities. Living at home for the first year or even two years helps to ensure that earning money will not get in the way of earning your degree.