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More California community college students are taking transfer-level courses, but critics say colleges must do more

Michael Burke for EdSource

Compton College is one of many colleges across the state that are offering to many remedial math classes, researchers say.

Community colleges across California have made significant progress in increasing access to classes that award transferable credits to students, but dozens of colleges are still offering many non-credit remedial courses — irking critics who say those colleges are neglecting their responsibilities under a new law.

Since the approval of landmark legislation in 2017 transforming remedial education at California’s community colleges, students are now accessing and completing transfer-level math and English classes at more than double the rate they did prior to the law being approved, according to new research from the Public Policy Institute of California. The report also showed that gaps between white students and Black and Latino students in accessing those courses have been narrowed, especially in English. 

The new law, AB 705, aimed to boost community college completion rates by making it much easier for students to enroll in transfer-level classes without first taking remedial classes. The significant changes came in response to research showing that students placed in remedial courses rarely went on to complete degrees or certificates. Other research has also found that many students placed in remedial courses could have passed college-level classes in those subjects if they had been allowed to enroll. 

While community college students are now increasingly taking classes that can be used to transfer to a four-year university, at more than half of the state’s 115 degree-granting community colleges, more than 20% of their introductory math offerings are remedial this semester.

That’s according to researchers with the California Acceleration Project, an organization that advocates for the elimination of remedial classes. The California Acceleration Project will jointly publish research this week with the law firm Public Advocates that further details that trend. 

Katie Hern, co-founder of that organization, noted in an interview with EdSource that students are more likely to enroll in remedial courses if that is what the colleges offer. 

“It’s telling that even if all of the research says that students would be better off enrolling directly in a transfer-level class and would have higher completion rates, colleges continue to offer remedial classes. And this violates the standard of the law,” Hern said.

Under the new law, colleges can’t deny a student entry into the transfer-level courses unless they can prove the student is “highly unlikely to succeed” in transfer-level coursework. The law was approved in 2017 and went fully into effect last fall. 

It’s unclear whether the Covid-19 pandemic will disrupt the ability of students in the future to access and complete transfer-level classes. The PPIC report noted there is concern that “students may not be ready for college” because of interruptions to education caused by the pandemic. 

Before AB 705 was law, students at California’s community colleges typically took placement tests to determine what math and English courses to take. The vast majority of students were deemed unprepared for college and placed in non-credit remedial classes. 

Remedial classes were initially a barrier to college completion for Marjorie Blen, who was enrolled at Contra Costa College from 2006 through 2008. After taking her placement tests, she was placed two levels below college-level in both math and English, and was unable to complete the remedial courses in either subject.

By the age of 21, Blen had completely dropped out of college and stopped pursuing her degree. “I just thought that college wasn’t for me,” she said.

About a decade later, Blen enrolled at City College of San Francisco and was again placed in remedial classes. This time, she was successful in English but struggled in her intermediate algebra class, unable to get better than a D. Blen said she remembers crying to herself and pondering whether to again drop out.

Instead, she convinced a counselor to approve her request to take a transfer-level statistics class in fall 2018 as a substitute for the intermediate algebra. Blen was initially intimidated by the class but formed a study group with other students and ended up passing the class with a B+.

She has since transferred to San Francisco State University, where she is majoring in sociology.

“I looked back at it and I realized there was nothing to be scared of. I did all the assignments. I did all the homework. I did all the reading. I took time to study like any other class. Like, why was I so scared to take this in the first place? And I did it and I passed it,” Blen said.

Blen isn’t the only student benefitting from being able to skip remedial classes.

Among students who took an English class for the first time in fall 2019, 96% of them enrolled in transfer-level college composition, up from 38% in 2015, according to the PPIC research. With so many more students enrolled in those classes, more students are naturally also completing those courses. In Fall 2019, 61% of first-time English students completed college composition in one term, up from 27% in 2015, when most first-time English students were enrolled in remedial classes.

Access and completion rates in transfer-level math are lower than English, but are still vastly improved from rates before AB 705 became law. In fall 2019, 78% of first-time math students were enrolled in a transfer-level math class, an increase from 21% in 2015. That same semester, 40% of first-time math students completed a transfer-level math class, compared to 14% in 2016. 


White and Asian students remain more likely than their Black and Latino peers to complete transfer-level classes, but gaps in access rates have been significantly narrowed. Black and Latino students are now accessing transfer-level English classes at nearly the same rates as white students, diminishing the wide gaps that existed before AB 705. Racial equity gaps have also been reduced for accessing transfer-level math courses, though not to the same degree.

But that progress is not uniform across the state. The California Acceleration Project’s research shows that at 69 colleges this semester, remedial classes still make up more than a fifth of the introductory math sections offered.

Those rates are similar to the course offerings in fall 2019, said Hern. 

“So we aren’t seeing further progress and the problems that we saw in year one still continue in year two. And the biggest of which is that colleges are still offering a really large proportion of remedial math sections,” Hern said.

At “a few colleges,” more than 40% of their introductory math classes are at the remedial level, Hern added. Only three colleges — Porterville College, Pasadena City College and College of the Sequoias — offered zero remedial math courses this semester, according to the research.

At the same time, Black and Latino students are disproportionately more likely to attend colleges offering higher rates of remedial math classes, the research found. The PPIC report similarly found that at a number of colleges, Black students “continue to be significantly underrepresented” among first-time math students who are starting in a transfer-level class.

I’m very excited for the results and the progress we’re seeing thus far, but there’s still work to be done,” Aisha Lowe, the community college system’s vice-chancellor of educational services and support, said at a recent webinar hosted by PPIC. 

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Michael Burke

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