FG Trade/E+/Getty Images
Marjorie Blen, a first-generation college student, dropped out of Contra Costa College because she couldn’t get through what felt like a never-ending series of remedial courses. She says she was required to take two noncredit English classes and three math classes that felt repetitive and taught concepts she’d already learned in high school.
Over time, she began to feel stuck and became frustrated about having to buy expensive textbooks and take the bus to and from the Northern California campus to attend classes that didn’t earn her college credit or move her closer to transferring to a four-year college. She called it quits in 2012—six years after enrolling at the college.
“It came to a point where I just was like, I can’t do this anymore,” she said. “I feel like I’m going nowhere.”
Blen restarted her studies five years later at City College of San Francisco, another two-year college, and was again enrolled in remedial English and math courses. She passed the English class but withdrew from the math class in the middle of the term and the following fall demanded to be put in a credit-bearing class, which she passed.
By then she was a fellow at Students Making a Change, a student advocacy organization at the college, and had learned about a 2017 state law, Assembly Bill 705, which prohibits California Community Colleges from requiring students to take remedial English or math courses without first considering their high school GPA and coursework and determining they are “highly unlikely to succeed” in classes that earn transferable college credits.
The law was designed to address a widely criticized aspect of remedial education—that it slows academic progress and discourages college completion—and to significantly reduce the number of students placed in these courses. Students of color like Blen, who is Latina, are disproportionately shuttled into remedial courses and suffer costly academic and financial consequences. Research shows that students placed in remedial education classes are less likely to complete the credit-bearing classes needed to graduate or to transfer to a four-year college, and they are likely to pay more tuition because of the noncredit courses.
“I started to understand I’m not the problem,” Blen said of learning about the law.
She and other advocates are concerned students are largely unaware of the law or the rights it affords them. Meanwhile, community colleges across California were required to comply with the law by fall 2019, but many still offer large numbers of remedial courses and suggest some students enroll in them without fully informing students about the additional time it will take to complete their studies.
Blen believes college leaders want to keep remedial courses to protect faculty jobs and keep enrollment and funding levels up. The result is more low-income students “stuck in poverty” as they struggle to earn degrees, which is bad for the state’s labor market and economy, she said.
Blen also doesn’t want other students to experience anything like her more-than-a-decade ordeal. A placement test she took at Contra Costa indicated she had to take the remedial courses in addition to the credit-bearing courses she would need if she wanted to transfer. She failed her final remedial English class twice and felt the instructor didn’t give her the help she needed. She was passing her nonremedial courses and watched as her friends, who had similar grades in high school, got placed in for-credit classes and moved ahead in their education while she remained stuck in place. After more frustrations with remedial coursework at City College of San Francisco, Blen transferred to San Francisco State University, where she’s now a senior and the lead project coordinator of a campaign by Students Making a Change to inform students about the remedial education law.
The law changing remedial coursework requirements calls on colleges to “maximize the probability” that a student will take and complete transfer-level English and math classes within a year and to use metrics such as high school coursework or GPA to place students into credit-bearing courses. (The law went into effect in 2018, after a California State University system executive order was issued eliminating placement tests and replacing them with multiple metrics to determine which classes students should take. The order also removed stand-alone developmental education prerequisite courses at CSU campuses.)
Only 16 percent of California Community Colleges students taking developmental education courses earned a certificate or associate degree within six years, and only 24 percent transferred to four-year colleges, according to a report published in 2016 by the Public Policy Institute of California. About 87 percent of Black and Latinx students took a remedial course at the time, compared to 73 percent of white students.
Pasadena City College, College of the Sequoias and Porterville College were the only institutions in the 116-college system that completely stopped offering stand-alone remedial courses by fall 2020, according to a December 2020 report by the California Acceleration Project, a faculty-driven effort to monitor and guide remedial education reform at California Community Colleges.
The California Acceleration Project report also found Black and Latinx students were concentrated at California Community Colleges that offered fewer than 70 percent of their introductory classes for credit. Meanwhile, Black students disproportionately attended colleges with more remedial classes than credit classes with corequisite academic supports to help students complete the courses. Remedial course offerings outnumbered transfer-level courses with corequisite supports at 82 percent of the colleges serving more than 2,000 Black students, according to the report.
Denise Castro, a policy analyst at Education Trust–West, a research and advocacy organization focused on education in California, believes remedial courses should be eliminated entirely.
“Educational equity really depends on equal access to credit-bearing, transfer-level coursework,” Castro said. “Colleges still continue to funnel many students into remedial courses. They are actually detrimental to students and harm students’ outcomes and really hold students back from their dreams and being able to graduate—transfer. This is a huge racial equity concern.”
Another report by the California Acceleration Project, published in October, analyzed 114 reports from colleges about their methods for course placements and found that more than half of the colleges still used placement practices that led to Black and Latinx students disproportionately enrolling in remedial courses. Students were given a choice to enroll in remedial math despite high and mid-range high school GPAs at 37 colleges and without considering available high school grades at 48 colleges, the report said.
Aisha Lowe, the state system’s vice chancellor for educational services and support, said colleges systemwide have followed the law by no longer requiring most students to take remedial courses and eliminating placement tests. She said this move has yielded results. For example, the share of first-time math students who completed a credit-bearing math course in one term rose to 46 percent in fall 2020, compared to 40 percent in fall 2019 and 24 percent in fall 2018, according to a December report by the Public Policy Institute of California.
“I feel like there’s been sort of a hyperfocus on the work still to be done and not enough of a celebration on how substantial and significant it is that we’ve made that level of progress in just two years,” she said
Lowe insisted that college administrators are following “the letter of the law” and said they also must now implement it in spirit. The chancellor’s office issued new guidance in December requiring colleges to submit a plan by March detailing the changes they’ll make to put almost all students in transferable courses.
“The spirit of the law is around maximizing the number of students who are not just having legal access to but are actually enrolling in those transfer-level courses, successfully completing those transfer-level courses and really focusing more on the unspoken goals of the law versus what’s actually codified in the actual legislation,” she said.
Other college and university systems elsewhere in the country have also reduced remedial courses in the last decade. Florida adopted a law getting rid of remedial courses in 2013, and the University System of Georgia started transitioning to the corequisite model in fall 2018.
Some faculty members oppose the effort to reduce remedial education. Daniel Judge, a mathematics professor at East Los Angeles College, said he and some other colleagues believe students should have the option to choose remedial coursework. Judge has taught remedial math courses for 27 years and took remedial math classes himself as a student at East Los Angeles.
Students should be able to choose courses that address their academic gaps, said Judge, who is also chair of the math curriculum committee at the Los Angeles Community College District and serves on the district’s Assembly Bill 705 task force.
Blen believes having the option of taking remedial courses still risks students of color being funneled into the classes and believing they need them without knowing the drawbacks of remedial coursework.
Judge said course completion rates aren’t the only measure of success. After Assembly Bill 705 passed, his district removed all remedial math courses below intermediate algebra. He’s concerned some students are passing credit-bearing courses because of an overreliance on calculators rather than a grasp of fundamental skills that they would get from remedial classes.
He also noted that more students may be completing for-credit coursework under the state law, but in his experience, more students are also failing. In the Los Angeles Community College District, an additional 981 Black and Latinx students successfully completed a credit-bearing statistics course in fall 2019 compared to fall 2018, but 2,450 more Black and Latinx students also failed the course. For every additional Black or Latinx student that got through the class, 2.5 additional students did not complete, he said.
“Do they come back?” Judge said. “What do we do for those students who are not getting through?”
Lowe said the college system plans to conduct research to answer those questions starting in the new year and will eventually issue guidance to colleges on how to help students succeed in credit courses.
Katie Hern, an English instructor at Skyline College and co-founder of the California Acceleration Project, noted that, in reports to the chancellor’s office, none of the colleges could reliably identify a group of students for whom remedial math made them more likely to pass credit courses.
Hern believes some college leaders are reluctant to let go of a “long-held belief that students aren’t prepared for college and that remedial courses help them get prepared.”
“That belief has been sort of held for decades, and we’re finding it’s sort of impervious to data,” she said. “There’s all this data showing that’s not true, that these classes aren’t helpful the way we intended, and they actually make students more likely to drop out of college without reaching their goals, but the belief persists.”