After graduating high school, Taheerah Mujahid put higher education on hold to become a new mother, promising herself that she would return someday to earn a college degree.
It took nearly two decades, but Mujahid kept that promise. She enrolled at Berkeley City College in 2009 and, earlier this year, transferred to UC Berkeley to pursue a major in sociology.
She now works on campus as a peer adviser, helping other community college students successfully transition to UC. Mujahid readily admits that she wouldn't have made it herself without help from a lot of people. Chief among them: advisers who helped her navigate the sometimes-confusing transfer process.
“You can’t do this alone. That's why it’s intimidating for a lot of students,” she said. For her, one challenge was finding a major that not only interested her, but fit well with the coursework she’d completed. “I had to come to my senses and understand what was realistic.”
University of California President Janet Napolitano and other senior UC leaders have pledged to make the process easier for community college students to navigate.
In one of her first acts in office, Napolitano appointed a Transfer Action Team to recommend strategies to make the transfer process more transparent, and to attract students across a broader range of California Community Colleges.
The team will present its recommendations Wednesday, May 14, to the UC Board of Regents at a meeting in Sacramento.
“Many California students begin their higher education journey at a community college, yet yearn for the opportunity to earn a four-year degree,” Napolitano said. “We must continue to support the access and success of the diversity of the California community college population.”
Meeting California's workforce needs
By 2025, the state is projected to face a deficit of 1 million to 2 million college degree-holders. Napolitano and other UC leaders are working with the California State University (CSU) and California Community College (CCC) systems to grow the ranks of college graduates.
Streamlining the transfer process is one key part of that. Beyond meeting workforce demands, helping students transfer to four-year institutions is essential to serving large numbers of economically diverse students and contributing to upward income mobility in the state.
For UC, improving the transfer process means building on its already notable success.
For example, UC already enrolls far more transfer students than the nation's other elite research universities. Transfer students comprise roughly one-third of all undergraduates, with about 15,000 new transfers joining UC each year.
These transfer students are part of why UC has such a strong record of serving first-generation and low-income college students. In 2013, 52 percent of UC’s incoming transfers were among the first in their families to go to college, and 55 percent of transfer students come from low-income families.
UC administrators recognize that transfer is an especially important option for lower-income students. Beginning at a community college helps students save money and stay close to home while building their academic credentials. And it provides an avenue for many bright students whose life circumstances precluded them from going straight from high school to a four-year university.
For others, transfer offers a vital second chance — an opportunity to overcome a troubled youth, get their life back on track and obtain a degree from a top-tier university.
Once transfers arrive at a UC campus, they tend to thrive: More than 86 percent of UC's transfer students earn a diploma, a rate that slightly exceeds that attained by incoming freshman.
Improving on success
Even with UC's strong track record, more could be done to serve transfer students, Napolitano has said.
She wants students to better understand which courses to take and how those courses transfer — information that currently can be so confusing that it may discourage potentially qualified students from pursuing a four-year degree.
Officials at the three public higher education systems are considering technological solutions that could make it easier for community college students to track their progress toward transferring to UC or CSU. They also are considering offering new academic routes that simplify the transfer process. These pathways would build on efforts such the Associate Degree for Transfer currently accepted by CSU, in which students who take a specific set of courses know they are transfer eligible.
Most UC transfers now come from a small number of the state's community colleges. Officials say more could be done to attract students from a wider range of institutions. Whatever course of action UC takes, however, it must be done in a way that complements the growing demand for freshman enrollment.
For Mujahid, having access to information about transfer and to mentors who encouraged her to look beyond community college was instrumental to getting to Berkeley.
“My first goal was an associate’s degree. I didn’t plan to go further. But as I became part of the community college system, I started to gain new skills, and realized I could use these [academic] skills to transfer.
"I could do something I’d always wanted to do — become a scholar. I thought, 'Wow! This is possible!'"