Open Access and “Excess Units”

Riverside City College, Educational Policies Committee Chair

Spurred in part by a press release from the Chancellor’s Office, delegates passed two resolutions on the topic of “excess units” at the Spring 2010 Plenary Session. One resolution urged that the Senate “research and develop an understanding of the causes of student accumulation of ‘excess units’ for the determination of ways that such unit accumulation can be appropriately minimized” (13.02) while a second resolution “affirm[ed] that high unit counts beyond direct necessity for degree or certificate completion or for transfer are not inherently negative” (13.06).

What is meant by an “excess unit?” The most recent wave of controversy began with the following statement in a January 29, 2010, press release from Chancellor Jack Scott: “A recent study by the California Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) indicated that in the 2007/08 academic year, taxpayers spent about $28 million on excess units [sic] taken by students to achieve a bachelor’s degree. In general, community college students transferring to a California State University graduated with an average of 162 units when the minimum required is 120.”1

In this data-enchanted age, the first question to ask would be whether or not this information is accurate; it turns out that it is not. The CSU system has been monitoring the number of units with which its native and transfer students graduate, partly in response to a little-noticed policy initiative explored by Governor Schwartznegger to consider a per-unit fee hike for students who could graduate but chose to remain enrolled. In the 2007-08 academic year (the most recent for which there is data), CSU research revealed that 5,864 transfer students graduated with over 144 units, the CSU-defined threshold for “excess units.” But those students comprised only 13% of all transfer students and thus the “excessive” behavior of a small minority was mistakenly generalized to the entire transfer student population.

To its credit, CSU set the threshold for “excess” at 144 units out of recognition that a variety of compelling reasons prompts students to enroll beyond the 120 unit minimum, including change of major, the completion of minors, double majors, or selection of a major with limited lower-division preparation possible in community colleges. Thus CSU has already decided that units earned beyond the minimum necessary to graduate are not inherently negative.

While 13% is a small percentage, the need of a significant number of students for the equivalent of an entire fifth year to complete a bachelor’s degree might be a concern. If these students wanted to remain enrolled in an educational program, a fifth year enrolled in a graduate or professional program might be a better investment in their long-term goals, but it would be presumptuous to assume this without actually examining the actual programs and transcripts of the students concerned. The cost of higher education in California has certainly not been declining and at least in the eyes of those students, there must have been something of value in the earning of those “excess units.”

While there are many anecdotal reasons why students remain enrolled, the budget cuts suffered by the CSU system have no doubt led to many classes being cancelled or offered less frequently, and the likelihood that students needed to remain enrolled an extra semester to complete required coursework does not seem far fetched. If this is the case, it is ironic that students are blamed for behavior caused by the California economy.

How much of this problem originates on community college campuses? Two rules make it unlikely that community colleges have much role to play in the issue. Since the LAO focuses on baccalaureate units, the developmental courses community college students take are not part of the BA total, since they are not transferable courses. In addition, California law prohibits students from transferring more than 70 semester units to a four-year college. Thus the majority of the excess units taken at CSU campuses are not excess units CCC transfer students bring with them.

A final concern should be raised by the LAO’s statement. While degree programs are the coin of the realm for the CSU (and UC) systems, that is not the case for community colleges. The statutory mission of California community colleges, as defined in Education Code §66010.4, includes mandates to serve students in ways that do not fit into degree-defined packages. Students who learn English or receive short-term vocational training in noncredit programs, degree holders who return to community colleges to retrain when their profession changes (or evaporates), graduate school bound students who take academic courses at community colleges rather than waiting to take them later, in fact provide a savings to taxpayers by taking courses at the least expensive—for both taxpayers and themselves—institution possible.

The concern that students are receiving ‘too much’ education is amplified with the LAO’s publication of “The 2011-12 Budget: Prioritizing Course Enrollment at the Community Colleges.”2 That document acknowledges that “in effect, CCC enrollments are currently being ‘rationed.’” Part of the LAO’s solution is to “recommend that the Legislature place a limit on the number of taxpayer-subsidized units that a student may earn at a CCC. We believe a 100-unit threshold would provide a reasonable maximum for state funding purposes.”

Because both UC and CSU are selective systems (UC takes the top 1/8th and CSU the top 1/3rd of California high school seniors), California already directs a higher percentage of its college-attending students to community colleges. It is a sad state of affairs when students are now begrudged even that level of access. Having skimped on public access to four-year colleges, now the Legislative Analyst ponders limiting community college education even further.

What kind of future should Californians look forward to when the state looks at the desire of its citizens to seek an education as a liability and defines the pursuit of education beyond the minimum required as “excess units”?

1 “California Community Colleges Chancellor Jack Scott Delivers Address on the Need to Improve National Transfer Rates to Universities”