More students than ever at California community colleges are completing classes in math and English that transfer to four-year institutions.
In the 2016-17 academic year, only 27% of students at California community colleges completed a transfer-level math class in their first year. By the 2019-20 academic year, that percentage nearly doubled, to 50%. Completion rates in transfer-level English for that time increased from 52% to 67%.
The reason is likely a 2017 California law, AB 705, that tasked community colleges with changing how they place students into classes, with the goal of sending fewer students to remedial education. Advocates say these developmental classes increase time to degree, decrease the likelihood of graduation and are disproportionately pushed on students of color.
But lawmakers and college officials in California say their work isn't done. They're advocating for additional legislation that would further limit remedial education classes at the state's community colleges. After a hearing last month, the bill they're boosting passed the California State Assembly's Higher Education Committee.
The fact that lawmakers and advocates are still pushing community colleges to change in California, five years after landmark legislation, is an important reminder that remedial reform efforts continue across the country. Those efforts have ramifications for colleges throughout the higher ed ecosystem, as they're expected to affect the number of students who succeed in community colleges and go on to transfer to other institutions.
The effort to tighten existing law is broadly popular with foundations and organizations that advocate for California students, like The Education Trust-West, the California Acceleration Project and the Campaign for College Opportunity. It's also supported by the chancellor's office at the California Community Colleges system and various student groups. While strong progress has been made on developmental education, supporters say, too many community colleges are still overly reliant on remedial classes.
"Although our system has made historic progress in implementing 705, there's been some unevenness, particularly at colleges with high percentages of students of color, Black and Latinx students in particular," said David O'Brien, vice chancellor for government relations for the system. "This was a major change for our system, and systemic change is hard and sometimes does take time. We recognize that."
Neither individual colleges nor the chancellor's office were given additional funding or support to implement the changes, he added. Separate proposals addressing other issues — tutoring for students in credit-bearing courses, course pathways and professional development in pedagogy — would provide some funding, though.
"We absolutely believe this is an enrollment issue."
Vice chancellor for government relations, California Community Colleges
The 2017 law largely prohibited colleges from requiring remedial coursework and mandated they use high school grades for placement. It also tasked colleges with placing students into classes where they have the maximum probability of completing transfer-level coursework within a year. Because reform advocates say no research has identified student groups that are likely to do better with remedial education than without, virtually all students have the right to enroll in transfer-level courses, the advocates argue.
But the law left some ambiguity and places for institutional-level judgment, said Jessica Thompson, vice president of the Institute for College Access and Success, a nonprofit research and policy organization. A report from the organization found that remedial classes were associated with increased enrollment fees of $410 to $1,390 per student, on average.
"By trying to be accommodating, there was a fair amount of judgment and flexibility that was built into the initial law," Thompson said. "That is where you always end up creating gray spaces."
A 2020 study by the California nonprofits Public Advocates and the California Acceleration Project found that at 69 of California's 116 community colleges, more than 20% of introductory math sections were remedial — a finding the authors said pointed to poor implementation of the 2017 law at those colleges.
Last year, Public Advocates wrote a public letter to the Los Rios Community College District, claiming the district was in violation of the 2017 law for, among other things, placing STEM majors who had not completed Algebra 2 or an equivalent into courses that wouldn't transfer to a four-year college. The complaint called on the district to eliminate all remedial math courses, which it has now said it will do by fall of 2022.
Buy-in isn't universal for the new bill. Faculty organizations have opposed the legislation, with some calling it a one-size-fits-all solution. The Faculty Association of California Community Colleges, along with labor organizations California Federation of Teachers and California Community College Independents, have come out against the bill.
In an interview, Wendy Brill-Wynkoop, president of FACCC, and Evan Hawkins, its executive director, said the bill could have unintended consequences, such as discouraging students by placing them in difficult classes, leading to failing grades and dropouts. Students should be able to take remedial classes if that's what they truly want, they said.
At the hearing last month, Desiree Montenegro, a member of the FACCC Board of Governors and faculty member at several community colleges, said she herself had experienced the "vicious cycle of remediation" in her education at community college but still believes the new bill is flawed. Faculty need additional resources and classroom support to teach students who arrive in class with a wide range of competencies, she said.
O'Brien, the community college system's vice chancellor, said he envisions a very limited future for pre-transfer classes, where they might be only offered in specific circumstances, such as in some career education pathways. Community colleges have struggled with enrollment woes in recent years, and he said that limiting remedial classes can be one way to boost numbers.
"We absolutely believe this is an enrollment issue," he said. "The students who know they're not going to be placed directly into remedial just by default and perhaps languish there for multiple terms, sometimes years on end, are, we believe, more likely to enroll."
“It’s worth it for the state to put the thumb on the scale."
Vice president of the Institute for College Access and Success
Not only are they more likely to enroll, he added, they're more likely to transfer to a four-year institution and graduate from it.
Thompson, of the Institute for College Access and Success, said the ongoing process in California highlights the importance of state action on remedial education. Because remedial education increases completion, there are incentives for community colleges to reform on their own, she said. But that can't be relied upon to create change.
"It's worth it for the state to put the thumb on the scale to push and accelerate, frankly, where the field has been heading," she said.