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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Using Ethnography to Understand How Policy Reform Influences the Transfer Process at One Community College


A critical function of community college is providing students with pathways to a bachelor’s degree through transfer. Although students hold high aspirations of transferring, their rates of success are extremely low. In California, policymakers have used legislation as a primary mechanism of addressing transfer inefficiencies in the state’s tiered higher education system. This article explores the ways that recent state-level reform policy SB-1440 (Student Transfer Achievement Reform Act, 2010)—intended to streamline the transfer process through Associate Degrees for Transfer—affected existing practices, practitioners, and transfer-seeking students at one community college. Employing an ethnographic approach, this study highlights the interaction between the existing context and policy mandates that reshape campus transfer culture. The findings indicate that, although the transfer policy reform was intended to improve transfer pathways for students, there was a disconnect between students’ aspirations and the state higher education institutions accepting these Associate Degrees for Transfer. Additionally, there was a misalignment between campus practitioners’ efforts to implement transfer reform and students’ awareness of improvements. To compensate for this disconnect, students formed a student counter-space. These findings suggest the need for transformative higher education policy, built upon concepts of transfer infrastructure, to improve college opportunities and outcomes for students across the state.

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