California Public Colleges 101: The Community College System

In California, college is complicated. Understand our 3 systems and how to get the best education out of each.

This is Part 1 in a 3-part series. Part 2 covers the California State University system and Part 3 covers the University of California system.

Part 1: The California Community Colleges — With115 colleges, the vast California Community College system is the largest in the nation. It is responsible for providing associate-level and certificate degrees to over 2 million students in the state. The police officers, EMTs, nurses, and droves of students who transfer to the CSU and UC systems all start at the community colleges. These campuses provide programs which serve the best interest of their local community’s public and business needs, allowing residents to live their lives while also improving their circumstances.

There are over 100 California Community Colleges

Why Go: California Community Colleges provide solid career training for students who have only a few years to put toward an education. Excellent careers with great pay and job security await students with associate degrees, including dental hygienist, paralegal, veterinary technician, and field science technician. This is the work that community colleges do best.

Many recent high school graduates also use their local community colleges as a pathway to transfer to the CSU and UC system, and this population is quickly becoming a majority at some campuses. These students want to save on tuition rates and housing for the first few years or perhaps did not meet the requirements right out of high school for their desired school. Some students seeking only a UC-level education will use the community college system if they don’t get accepted at their first-choice UC since transfer admission rates are often (but not always) higher at these schools.

Both the CSU and UC systems have commitments to these students and provide pathways and guarantees (TAG for UC, ADT for CSU) to encourage local community college students to continue their educations. Some campuses are more friendly to transfer than others; UC Berkeley, UCLA, and UC San Diego allow transfer but do not participate in the TAG program, and some CSU majors have no articulated classes past the 39 GE units students can transfer.

For the first two years, most bachelor’s degree requirements are the same: a collection of general education courses which provide a wide base of learning before a student dives into their major. These course requirements are the same just about everywhere — freshman English composition courses, laboratory science, history, etc. — so a student can easily get this work done locally before moving on to a university for their major work. Community colleges also focus on student support: small class sizes, tutoring services, support classes, and open labs run by professors are the norm. A UC-bound student in a general major like biology would be able to skip the 400-seat freshman weeder lecture by completing their lower division work at a community college.

For a practical student whose financial circumstances requires saving on their education or for a student who needs a few years to improve their academic performance, a community college transfer path is an excellent choice.

Caveats: While the workforce pathways and easy admission criteria are their greatest selling points, community colleges aren’t without their issues. Admissions processes are often complicated. Counseling services and classroom experiences can be uneven. The low bar of entry means that many students will try community college, but the cheap price can mean that classes are easy to walk away from, too. While it varies between campuses, the graduate rate for the system overall hovers around 30%.

Especially in challenging transfer-level math and science classes which must follow the same curriculum that the CSUs and UCs do, it isn’t uncommon for a class of 30 to have only 10 students left by the end of the term. Such a heavy dropout rate can be demoralizing for a young student whose persistence is often bolstered by their peers. While most students delight in the wide range of diverse students they meet in a community college class, a highly ambitious, 4-year-ready student may be disappointed with a community college experience that prioritizes giving everyone a chance over serving only excellence.

Further, despite efforts to encourage CSU/UC transfer, the transfer pathway is anything but easy. CSU and UC requirements differ, making it hard for a student to prepare for both. Within each system’s schools, requirements also differ, again making it difficult for a student to prepare for more than one UC or CSU campus. Students transferring from semester-system CCCs to quarter-system UCs will need to give extra care to the “series” classes which would take 1 year at the UC but require 2 or 3 semesters at the community college — and only count if you take them all. Further, students who want to go into “hard science” majors at competitive UCs (biology majors at UC San Diego, for example), should expect to spend 3–4 years at the community college in order to complete all general education and major preparation classes that are required for transfer.

Counter to the common advice that the community college is great for students who don’t know what they want to do, unless a student knows exactly what they plan to major in and which college they want to go to, the CSU/UC transfer path can be long and frustrating.

Getting in: At $46 per unit, most people can reasonably take classes without having to go into debt, and those who can’t will likely be eligible for the California Promise Grant which colleges use to make tuition free or provide other incentives for students with need. As the most open-access higher education system (students only need to be 18 years old or have a high school diploma), the community colleges accept one and all every semester with a simple online application. The community college provides a wide range of educational opportunities to just about anyone who wants to give higher education a try.

For students who seek an associate’s level degree, a certificate for a specific career, or who need to demonstrate their academic success at a higher level before moving on to the university level, a local community college is the place to be.

For more about California’s 4-year university systems, read Part 2: The California State University and Part 3: The University of California.

Kelly Mogilefsky is a high school English and AVID teacher in a Middle College Program and an Independent Educational Consultant. Learn more about her services at Mogilefsky Consulting.

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