"I think this is one of the most important issues that we have," National Economic Council Director Gene Sperling said ahead of a White House higher-education and social-mobility event last month.
He wasn't talking about student loans, affirmative action, or careers in science and technology. He was talking about making it easier for students to transfer from community colleges to four-year institutions.
Community colleges in recent years have become a common first step toward a bachelor's degree, particularly for low-income, minority, and first-generation college students. Starting out at a two-year institution can be a practical option for those who don't want, can't afford, or aren't qualified to enter a four-year university right away. But in most states, the transfer route is an often-impassible obstacle course. Depending on which survey you see, at least half — and perhaps as many as 80 percent — of community-college students hope to transfer to four-year institutions, but only about 11 percent earn bachelor's degrees within six years, according to the Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics.
Many states have recognized that their higher-education systems haven't caught up with the way students are using them, and they are working to improve transfer pathways, but California's effort will be the most consequential: The Golden State's sprawling system serves about a quarter of all community-college students in the nation. By the end of this year, the state expects to have fully implemented a 2010 law that requires community colleges to offer associate's degrees that guarantee graduates admission as juniors to a California State University campus.