After 20 long months, community college students in California are back on campus. They are drawn there for the same reasons that others were before them: the promise that community colleges provide life-changing opportunities and a chance to transfer to a four-year school. But, for Black and Latino students, too many community colleges today are falling far short of this promise.
Things were supposed to be different by 2021.
For decades, students of color have been disproportionately funneled into noncredit-bearing, high school-level remedial classes that do not count toward graduation or transfer to a four- year university. These courses waste students’ time and make them less likely to earn a degree.
This should have changed in 2017 with the passage of AB 705 which overhauled these practices. Community colleges are now effectively banned from pushing students into high school-level remedial classes. And if they do want to enroll students there, colleges must first prove the students are highly unlikely to succeed in a transfer-level class. Study after study has shown that students from all racial and socioeconomic backgrounds perform better in California community colleges if they are enrolled directly in transfer-level, credit-bearing courses — sometimes with concurrent supports such as tutoring — versus squandering time and money in remedial classes earning no credit.
To be sure, some colleges, such as Merritt College and College of the Canyons, have made progress toward overhauling these policies that have historically operated as built-in headwinds against Black and Latino student success. They’ve added far more transfer-level classes and cut back their remedial courses. They’ve added co-requisite support courses, such as labs, that provide students with additional support while taking transfer-level courses. These changes have produced dramatic increases in transfer-level class completion across the system.
Other colleges, however, have been slow to change, and Black and Latino students disproportionately attend these colleges. In fact, colleges serving more than 2,000 Black students are twice as likely to offer noncredit-bearing math classes than colleges with fewer Black students. And, not surprisingly, Black and Latino students are disproportionately placed in these remedial classes. Despite promises about equity by the California Community College system, Black and Latino students’ rights to directly enroll in transfer-level courses are being nullified by these practices. We are demanding accountability on behalf of all community college students in California.
This summer, Public Advocates formally demanded that Cosumnes River College stop using policies that violate Black and Latino students’ rights under AB 705. This is the first time a college has been legally challenged on its noncompliance with this law. Specifically, we took issue with the continued high enrollment of students in nontransferable remedial courses and the lack of access and support for students to enroll directly in transfer-level math courses.
Cosumnes, however, is not the only college that appears to be out of sync with the law. We are looking closely at colleges throughout the state that have equally troubling practices, including American River College, Sacramento City College, Contra Costa College, Los Angeles Trade-Tech, East Los Angeles College, Palomar College, San Bernardino Valley College and Antelope Valley College, to name a few. At most of these colleges, Black students represent more than 10% of the student population, but they continue to be significantly underrepresented in transfer-level math courses. We are hoping to work with these colleges to bring their policies and practices into alignment with AB 705.
Generations of students who could have succeeded have had their lives derailed because they were trapped in a never-ending cycle of remedial classes and ultimately failed to continue their education. A faithful implementation of AB 705 would put an end to this cycle.
On behalf of community college students, we call on the chancellor and the 116 community colleges to uphold students’ rights under AB 705, and ensure the promise of the California Dream for all.
Jetaun Stevens is a senior staff attorney at Public Advocates, a civil rights law firm based in San Francisco.
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