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Conflict brews over governor’s student transfer guarantee plan for ultracompetitive UCLA

For thousands of community college students who compete each year to transfer to the ultra-competitive UCLA, it sounds like a dream: complete required courses, earn a certain grade, and earn guaranteed admission to the nation’s most popular university.

That’s what Governor Gavin Newsom instructed UCLA to do in his proposed budget last month — or risk losing $20 million in state funding. Newsom, along with lawmakers and many justice advocates, pushed the University of California to do so simplifies the transfer process and widen access to more state students, especially at UCLA, UC Berkeley, and UC San Diego, the system’s three most selective campuses.

Newsom’s proposal blindsided UCLA and sparked a struggle to understand the governor’s intent. Neither Newsom’s office nor the Treasury Department responded to a request for comment about the directive, which lacked details such as eligibility goals. At a state assembly hearing Tuesday, Jack Zwald of the finance department said the proposal was designed to “increase access and equity” for transfer students to UCLA.

But opposition to it emerged last week in unexpectedly strong language. The state’s impartial Legislative Analyst’s Office, which provides tax and policy advice to lawmakers, mentioned Newsom’s proposal “particularly myopic,” saying it would present a “very poor policy bias” by linking government funding to limited outcomes on a single campus. The legislature must pass the budget by June 15.

In addition, the analysis said the proposal “violates the basic principle of fairness” by potentially penalizing one campus while others who act similarly would not face repercussions from the state. Of UC’s nine undergraduate campuses, six offer transfer admission guarantee programs. UCLA, UC Berkeley and UC San Diego do not.

The analysis recommended that the legislature reject the proposal and consider an approach to transfer reforms that would apply to all campuses. At least one major legislator involved in state education policy — Councilman Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento) — also supports a system-wide approach.

“Why single out UCLA? We didn’t get a clear answer” from Newsom’s team, said Jennifer Pacella, deputy regulatory analyst who co-authored the review. “UCLA has a good track record in this area. We saw no problem.”

Eloy Ortiz Oakley, president of the nonprofit organization Future College Foundation and former chancellor and UC regent of the California Community Colleges, said he supports Newsom’s push on UCLA and the UC system. Oakley – who in 2018 forged an agreement with then-UC president Janet Napolitano to improve transfer guarantee pathways – said he remains frustrated with the pace of progress.

“I agree with the governor that he should emphasize and provide strong incentive for UC to move aggressively toward a transfer,” Oakley said. “It sends a clear message to (UC President) Michael Drake that he needs to get his campuses on board.”

In a statement, a spokesperson for the university said UC leaders shared Newsom’s and the legislature’s commitment to providing state community college students with the necessary support to transition to UC and thrive. UC will continue to work with state leaders to expand the transfer pipeline, including additional outreach to 65 campuses with large numbers of low-income students, the statement said.

Three-quarters of state community college applicants are admitted to UC, more than half of enrollees pay no tuition, and 89% graduate — a rate slightly higher than those who start as freshmen and significantly higher than the national average of 55%. according to UC data. A third of UC students are transfer students.

“Providing opportunities for California transfer students remains a top priority for the university, and we will continue to work with anyone who shares that commitment,” Drake said in a statement to The Times.

UC faculty leaders say they would like to accommodate more transfer students from diverse backgrounds. But they question whether imposing a transfer guarantee program at UCLA could have unintended consequences. Students are currently admitted under a comprehensive assessment process that takes into account their life experiences, neighborhoods, and challenges. A transfer guarantee program that is mainly tied to numbers – which it usually is correlate with family income – could displace students who would have been admitted through the assessment process.

Such transfer guarantees have traditionally been used to attract students to campuses with sufficient free places. But UCLA has a plethora of candidates, said Jim Chalfant, chair of the UC Academic Senate’s special committee on transfer issues.

Last year, UCLA admitted 23% of its 24,907 transfer applicants for Fall 2022. While that admission rate is nearly three times the rate for freshman applicants, competition is still fierce. Admitted entrants had near-perfect grades, with a median GPA of 3.9.

Still, UCLA expects to enroll the highest number of UC campus entrants this academic year, have the best enrollment rate compared to freshmen, and graduate at higher rates than the system-wide average, the legislative analyst’s assessment said.

“The campus shows no evidence that special rules are needed to promote better transfer access or outcomes,” the analysis said.

Drake reiterated that point at Tuesday’s budget meeting subcommittee hearing. He said UCLA had “arguably the most successful” student admissions process among the system’s nine undergraduate campuses. A higher proportion of UCLA’s transfer students come from an underrepresented racial and ethnic background than freshmen, while the reverse is true system-wide, he said. Drake added that UCLA is building its diverse transfer class by using its holistic assessment process.

“We wouldn’t want a change that would reduce underrepresented students’ ability or access to UCLA,” Drake said.

Of UCLA’s transfer students, about half are low-income, 45% are the first in their families to attend college, and a third represent historically underrepresented racial and ethnic groups. They are predominantly products of California Community Colleges, representing 110 of the system’s 116 campuses. However, nearly half were admitted from 10 campuses, including Santa Monica College, Pasadena City College, Los Angeles Pierce College in Woodland Hills, El Camino College in Torrance, and Irvine Valley College.

Jessica Cattelino, president of the UCLA Academic Senate, said the campus was “proud to meet our transfer goals and commitments on a regular basis and consider successful transfer programs and experiences as core to the academic mission.”

However, some justice advocates say UCLA and UC could do better.

Michele Siqueiros, president of the Campaign for College Opportunity, said all UC campuses should provide a guaranteed admissions path for transfer students, as the California State University system does.

Cal State admits all students who complete a two-year community college degree, known as an Associate Degree for Transfer, and meet minimum GPA requirements. The university only guarantees access to the system, but not to specific campuses.

Below the six UC campuses with transfer guarantee programs, most omit certain majors from the program due to the sheer number of applicants for limited seats. For example, UC Davis is ruling out its new major in data science. UC Irvine drops arts, business, dance, music, nursing, and all majors at the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences. The Irvine campus does guarantee other popular majors such as biological sciences and psychological sciences.

System-wide, 13,031 of the 46,155 prospective entrants have applied for fall 2021 through the guaranteed admissions program. In a memo presented to regents last month, UC said its top priorities are doubling the number of students with guaranteed transfer admissions, increasing the number of students from underrepresented backgrounds and strengthening transfer support services, particularly in the Central Valley and Inland Empire.

Oakley and Siqueiros are urging UC to admit all community college students who earn the Associate Degree for Transfer, as Cal State does. Earning that degree guarantees assessment, but not admission to UC.

But UC has indicated that it does not support a “one-size-fits-all” approach across all of its campuses and with CSU.

“Student transfer in California has been described as a confusing maze of options that is difficult to navigate. This has led to a push towards streamlining of transfer that prioritizes the standardization of transfer options at the expense of the wealth of educational opportunities
available to students,” the memo said. “The university prefers to embrace the differences that distinguish focus areas within popular, important UC disciplines.”

Chalfant, of the UC Academic Senate, said it was “impracticable” to use identical requirements for both systems due to differences in some majors. For example, UC’s STEM majors typically require more math and science, such as organic chemistry for biology, which is not included in the associate degree for transfer courses.

Chalfant said he understands the need for a clear path from community college to UC.

“Students just want to know what to do and they will do it,” he said. ‘It’s very reasonable. UC will continue to make improvements.”