Steven L. Crow, Ed. D. has worked in higher education administration for more than twenty years serving in the vice president and interim president roles at three California Community Colleges and many more interim and consulting roles since his semi-retirement in 2017. Dr. Crow earned his doctorate degree at UC Davis in the Educational Leadership program and has a Master’s in Education from Northern Arizona University, a Bachelor of Business Administration from Prescott College, and a Computer Information Systems degree from Yavapai College. Dr. Crow has served on seven peer review accreditation teams including site visit teams, requests for substantive change, special financial review task forces, and an accreditation restoration team. “Steve” believes that higher education should be data-driven but always student-focused. Dr. Crow’s dissertation, The Significance of the Transfer Mission for the California Community Colleges, explored the emphasis that executive leadership places on the transfer mission at their institutions.
The community college system is a significant component of higher education in America, playing a vital role in providing access to affordable education. Accordingly, community colleges are intended to provide a pathway through which students can pursue the first two years of their baccalaureate and, thereafter, readily transfer to a four-year college.
This article draws upon my dissertation research that focused on the California community college system but contains questions and observations common for community colleges throughout America. Ten years ago, I sought to understand how the presidents and chancellors of California’s Community Colleges (CCCs) valued and prioritized the transfer component of their mission statements. My dissertation research focused on the opinions and attitudes of the CCC college president or chancellor, the “CEOs” of the colleges, and the emphasis they placed on their mission to transfer students to a four-year college or university. During the time that has passed since my research at U.C. Davis, California has passed multiple educational laws to promote transfer and the funding of successful outcomes for students achieving progress toward a degree or certificate. While the emphasis on the transfer mission has increased, low transfer rates at community colleges remain a significant issue in California and arguably throughout the United States.
What do CEOs at the CCCs think about the emphasis on the transfer mission? Do they see the emphasis as being too little, a problem, or is a very small demand for transfer already being met? Do they prioritize their resources and provide sufficient courses to meet the transfer demand? Or, are most classrooms filled with vocational instruction, basic skills, or community education courses? Do the CEOs perceive a greater demand for the transfer mission than is being met?
In addition to the mission of transfer, community colleges are both traditionally and currently responsible for vocational education. CEOs are often faced with maintaining tension between the roles of transfer and vocational missions as they provide vocational training for the community and state. How do community colleges serve students equally well who are striving for very different outcomes?
Trying to achieve the college’s mission within funding constraints creates multiple challenges for the CEO. For the purpose of my study, the CEO was viewed as an educational administrator guided by the state’s Master Plan, charged with achieving the college’s mission, as reflected in a locally governed district. She or he is expected to achieve this outcome, despite restrictive funding regulations and apportionment from the state. The CEO may use existing revenues and expenses to address the mission of a college in the most efficient manner but must seek additional revenue sources to accomplish underfunded portions of the mission.
The evolution of the community college mission and specifically the broad mission of community colleges has shaped the role of the CEO. These leaders’ attitudes and practices are heavily influenced by local community needs and state policies that often determine the demand for each component of a college’s mission and the resources available to serve students. CEOs have been faced with an urgent need to prioritize within the many missions of community colleges in light of the recent budget cuts to higher education in California and specifically the deep cuts to community colleges.
Transferring community college students to a four-year institution was a primary mission component of the junior college system of California as it was envisioned in the 1960 Education Master Plan. However, as junior colleges evolved into the California Community College system over the past sixty-plus years, the emphasis on transfer has had to compete with many other mission components. A comprehensive examination of college CEOs’ attitudes about and practices regarding these multiple missions and the priority that they place on the transfer mission—given the many competing missions—may lead to a better understanding for policymakers and college leaders tasked with identifying misalignments and better reallocation of resources.
A common mission, or an emphasis on any one mission for community colleges in California, does not seem to exist. The transfer mission at California’s community colleges is a major factor in the debate over the definition of student success. However, there is little agreement among the CEOs surveyed in my study about what emphasis should be placed upon encouraging students to transfer or improving the successful attainment of transfer status at California’s community colleges.
CEOs recognize and support the transfer mission and often rank it as the most important mission. CEOs suggest that you cannot solely focus on transfer, but rather the community college must provide multiple pathways for student success that may lead to transferring to a four-year institution. This would imply that many, if not most, CEOs surveyed support a multiple or hybrid mission and resist the implication of regulation to narrow that mission to achieve student success. However, it appears that CEOs are somewhat ambiguous when addressing the transfer mission and the need to increase transfer students at community colleges. While most CEOs agree that improvement is needed, it is not clear how they would make changes to achieve improvement.
California needs far more four-year graduates than ever before, but the percentage of transfer students remains low within the complexity of the many missions that community colleges now juggle.
California’s community colleges are often likened to a “smorgasbord” of educational opportunities. While this breadth can be viewed as a positive circumstance, offering “something for everyone,” it also has the potential of presenting students with confusing and conflicting choices, perhaps even sidetracking them to outcomes other than transfer to a four-year institution. From my study, it is apparent that CEOs have the authority and opportunity to remove at least some of the ambiguity now associated with the transfer mission. CEOs can deliberately focus their colleges on courses and associate degrees that address transfer readiness and, therefore, provide a more discernible and intentional pathway to a four-year degree.
The research conclusions of my study suggest that CEOs do have a philosophic commitment to the transfer mission of their college. However, the data also suggests that CEOs have an untapped opportunity to focus considerably more of their own leadership on improving the transfer rates and, in so doing, prioritizing transfer as a core mission of their institution. Within this approach, CEOs should consider the potential of aligning other elements of their mission, (such as basic skills or academic preparedness, vocational certificates, and associate degrees) as vertical or contributing components to the larger mission of transfer. In so doing, these critical components can be viewed as significant, mission-centered achievements that are also aligned as markers on the pathway to a four-year degree.
Within the context of my primary research questions, CEOs should consider making a commitment to improving transfer rates and not just promoting other student success outcomes as an acceptable alternative to transfer for most students. CEOs have an opportunity to focus more on transfer as a core mission, which the other components of their mission support. Other mission components listed in my study can be viewed as supporting components of the transfer mission. Basic skills or academic preparedness, vocational certificates, and associate degrees can and must be vertically aligned to provide a pathway to a four-year degree. Community college CEOs should consider all of these efforts to create intentional pathways for student success in the form of increased opportunities and support for transfer to a four-year college or university.