Braided Rivers: Toward Clear Transfer Pathways for STEM Students

ASCCC Transfer, Articulation, and Student Services Committee

The following article is not an official statement of the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges. The article is intended to engender discussion and consideration by local colleges but should not be seen as the endorsement of any position or practice by the ASCCC.

In 2021, Assembly Bill 928 (Berman, 2021) aimed to foster improvements in the academic achievement of transfer students. Transfer opportunity gaps are the largest for Latinx/Latine and Black transfer students, and a majority of transfer students experience intersegmental transfer as unclear, complex, and incongruent with their educational plans (Hotchkiss, 2019). With regard to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) students, AB 928 specifically indicated that intersegmental transfer should be streamlined by degree pathway proposals with a “higher unit threshold.” The December 2023 final report from the Associate Degree for Transfer Intersegmental Committee specifically recommended “an option for up to an additional six units” and an allowance for “general educational flexibility” in STEM ADT pathways (Fischbeck, 2023). Presumably, the higher unit threshold and course requisite flexibility would reduce credit loss, improve transfer preparation, and support the development of new ADT pathways for STEM bachelor degree completers. In order to improve the experiences of STEM transfer students and develop appropriate course pathway requirements, proposals for STEM ADT pathways should prioritize STEM-specific coursework and provide more options for post-transfer degree programs.

Community College Engineering Programs and the Transfer Function

Community colleges in the United States stand apart from other higher education institutions due to their role in cultivating a demographically diverse pool of engineering and technology scholars from low-income backgrounds (Cosentino et al., 2014; Malcolm & Feder, 2016).  Engineering associate degree completion by women and by Black and Latinx/Latine students is nearing demographic parity at a national level (Berhane et al., 2023). Additionally, post-matriculation transfer students persist in engineering university programs at the same rate as non-transfers (Sullivan et al., 2012). As a result, post-traditional—for example, older, non-White, employed, part-time—engineering students are approaching numerical parity with traditional university engineering students (National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, 2023).  

As this shift occurs, the enrollment of transfer students must also shift from a component of campus diversity initiatives to an integrated enrollment management practice. If engineering transfer students are only valued for their diversity, transfer policies and practices aid the representation of engineering as a discipline for White cis-gender men and of transfer students as underprepared. As a result, transfer students are not recognized for the assets they bring to receiving institutions, and the institutions are not held accountable for the policies and practices that contribute to the marginalization of transfer students.

In 2022, 2,459 engineering transfers from California community colleges enrolled in programs at the California State University (California State University, n.d.), and 1,112 engineering transfers students were enrolled in University of California programs (University of California, 2023). However, ADTs are not available in engineering or engineering sub disciplines for transfer students who enroll in CSU or UC engineering programs. While C-ID courses and  model curricula exist for engineering pathways, “autonomous university engineering faculty have made independent changes to their lower-division curricula” such that no “single engineering course” is required by similar bachelor’s degree programs across the state (Dunmire et al., 2011). Additionally, engineering bachelor degree programs “are designed to have more general education courses in the latter 2 years” to provide a balance between “difficult technical courses [and] nonprogram elective courses” (Grote et al., 2020). The design of these degrees contradicts the emphasis on general education courses in ADTs and creates a misalignment with pre-transfer coursework for students interested in engineering bachelor’s degrees.  

STEM transfer students receive conflicting messages about which community college courses to complete, creating confusion that contributes to credit loss and does not support the development of new STEM ADT pathways. Given the high participation of Latinx/Latine and Black students in the California Community Colleges system, new STEM ADT pathways can improve equitable outcomes by accelerating the matriculation of transfer students without requiring the completion of all general education classes before transfer.

Stacked Certificate Model

Given the diversity of course requirements and the divergent designs of engineering and other STEM degree programs in the CSU and UC systems, a single ADT pathway should align with all the variants of bachelor degree programs available. A stacked certificate model would ease the completion of credentials by students who co-enroll or laterally transfer between post-secondary institutions. Moreover, the larger goal of the ADT is to move away from course articulation and toward the recognition of community college credentials that provide the prerequisite preparation for upper-division coursework. An embedded, stacked certificate model would support the development of new STEM ADTs and serve as a model of clear transfer pathways.

As engineering programs in the CSU and UC systems differ primarily by the amount of prerequisite general education and discipline-specific courses they require, a certificate model should include course groupings that reflect the different levels of prerequisite preparation expected by different engineering transfer programs without necessitating the completion of all the engineering courses or unaligned general education courses to earn a transfer pathway credential. The following proposed structure offers an example:

  • Level 1 engineering certificates include two semesters of calculus, two semesters of engineering physics, and English composition.  
  • Level 2 engineering certificates include an Introduction to Engineering course, two additional semesters of mathematics, and two non-STEM, transferable general education courses.  
  • Level 3 engineering certificates are discipline specific—e.g. Mechanical, Civil, Electrical, Software, Chemical, and Materials—and include only discipline specific courses and non-discipline specific STEM courses.  

In combination, a sequential set of these three certificates would yield a discipline-specific ADT pathway.

As shown in Figure 1 below, the certificate structure also provides guidance for students who decide to transfer before completing the ADT coursework or who change their engineering discipline fields. This pathway design provides improved clarity, potentially reduces credit loss, and limits the complexity that students experience in transfer pathways. Such an ADT design also parallels efforts in other states to prepare STEM students for bachelor degree programs (Kakkikonen, 2014).  

Image of proposed certificates for an embedded, stacked certificate engineering ADT pathway

Figure 1: The images above include proposed certificates for an embedded, stacked certificate engineering ADT pathway. Course numbers included in the certificates are from the C-ID numbering system.

What Local Academic Senates Can Do

The work toward an improved transfer system for STEM students aligns with two areas of the academic and professional matters of academic senate purview delineated in Title 5 §53200: degree and certificate requirements and educational program development. Local academic senates should therefore be involved in the dialogue regarding the degree development and should emphasize the importance of involving discipline faculty in this work.

  • Local academic senates can become involved in these discussions in the following ways:
  • Agendize the topic for discussion at local academic senate meetings and other college governance or leadership meetings.
  • Encourage the creation of a curriculum inquiry group to further explore stackable certificates.
  • Include student representatives and student voices in the conversations.
  • Collect and discuss data on the pre-transfer course-taking patterns of STEM transfer students, the alignment of these patterns with transfer pathway requirements, and opportunity gaps in STEM pathways.
  • Initiate conversations about transfer pathways that incorporate inclusive policies and affirm the learning experiences of STEM transfer students with representatives from transfer-receiving institutions.
  • Provide support and resources to discipline faculty as they develop or revise certificate and degree programs that serve both local and statewide STEM pathways and to all faculty who seek new program designs that address the challenges faced by transfer students.
  • Encourage the hiring of STEM faculty that bring expertise in program design and inclusive service and work to revise hiring practices to attract qualified candidates.
  • Connect with the California Engineering Liaison Council, a voluntary body of engineering faculty from the public California higher education segments that has been working to address these challenges.

STEM faculty, those closest to the program design and the pulse of STEM transfer students, must be central to these efforts and receive support from their local academic senates, their curriculum committees, and their colleagues at transfer-receiving institutions in order to be more thoughtful and creative in their program design.


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California State University. (n.d.). First-Time Freshmen from California High Schools and Other Institutions. Tableau.

Cosentino, C., Sullivan, M. D., Gahlawat, N. T., Ohland, M. W., & Long, R. A. (2014). Black engineering transfer students: What explains their success? 2014 IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference (FIE) Proceedings, 1–5.

Dunmire, E., Enriquez, A., & Disney, K. (2011). The dismantling of the engineering education pipeline. 2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition Proceedings, 22.1443.1-22.1443.17.

Fischbeck, L. (2023). 2023 Final Report and Recommendations. AB 928 Associate Degree for Transfer Intersegmental Implementation Committee.

Grote, D. M., Knight, D. B., Lee, W. C., & Watford, B. A. (2020). Exploring Influences of Policy Collisions on Transfer Student Access: Perspectives From Street-Level Bureaucrats. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 42(4), 576–602.

Hotchkiss, B. (2019). Sources of Enrollment and Completion Gaps in STEM Higher Education. California Education Learning Lab.

Kakkikonen, D. (2014). Associate of Science Transfer and STEM Focused Direct Transfer Agreement—Associate of Arts (14-3). Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges.

Malcolm, S., & Feder, M., eds. (2016). Barriers and Opportunities for 2-Year and 4-Year STEM Degrees: Systemic Change to Support Students’ Diverse Pathways (S. Malcom & M. Feder, Eds.; p. 21739). National Academies Press.

National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics. (2023). Diversity and STEM: Women, minorities, and persons with disabilitites 2023 (Special Report NSF 23-315). National Science Foundation.

Sullivan, M. D., De Cohen, C. C., Barna, M. J., Orr, M. K., Long, R. A., & Ohland, M. W. (2012). Understanding engineering transfer students: Demographic characteristics and educational outcomes. 2012 Frontiers in Education Conference Proceedings, 1–6.

University of California. (2023, February 9). Transfers by Major.