Like many others, I went into higher education administration with a goal of ensuring that college be equally available to all. Ultimately, as the chief academic officer of the City University of New York system for six years, I had the opportunity to establish and maintain many academic policies for hundreds of thousands of students -- all directed, I thought, at providing the best possible education for every student. However, I now understand, due to my own and others’ research, that some of the commonplace policies that I initiated, maintained and promoted were, and are, structurally racist.
While we acknowledge that some classroom instruction and other direct human interactions are racist, how can higher education policies be racist? Especially at a public institution such as CUNY with a place for every high school graduate, low tuition and extensive financial aid, as well as much data demonstrating that it promotes social mobility.
Racism doesn’t only occur in the behavior of one individual toward another. Racism can also be embedded in institutional policies and practices -- what is known as structural racism. More specifically, structural racism exists when institutional policies and practices result in people from underrepresented racial groups being more likely to be disadvantaged, even unintentionally. And we’ve found that two features (at least) of higher education can qualify as structural racism: remediation (requiring college students to take zero-credit, precollege courses in math and/or reading/writing, intended to prepare them for college-level work) and the lack of credit transfer from associate to bachelor’s degree programs.
First, let us consider remediation. Large percentages of college students in the United States (59 percent in associate programs and 33 percent in bachelor’s programs) take at least one remedial course; many more have been required to take such courses but have not done so. The students assigned to such courses are more likely to be Black, Latinx and poor.
Evidence shows that assignment to remediation does not just depend on what a student knows or can do. For example, college advisers are more likely to assign Latinx students to remediation than white students with similar credentials. On tests like the placement tests often used to determine assignment to remediation, students from underrepresented racial groups perform worse if the tests ask them to indicate their racial status.
In addition, these tests often underplace students: one-quarter to one-third of students who do not pass them would get a B or better if they took college-level courses. Further, when colleges use just placement tests for assigning remediation, students from underrepresented groups perform relatively worse than when colleges use high school grades, and high school grades generally predict college performance better than test scores. Yet many colleges continue to use test scores for placement into remediation.
And being assigned to remediation is a bottomless pit. Less than 50 percent of students complete their assigned remedial courses, either due to not passing them or simply not taking them. Moreover, evidence shows that such placements stigmatize students and sap their motivation. Colleges require students in remedial courses to repeat what they already passed in high school and essentially tell them that they are not yet ready for college-level work. If students do not pass these remedial courses, they cannot graduate.
There is a better way: corequisite remediation (also known as corequisite support). In this approach, students are placed into college-level classes, with additional, targeted academic support as needed. Extensive and rigorous evidence demonstrates that corequisite remediation improves academic performance and even increases graduation rates -- by almost 50 percent in our research. California and Tennessee, for example, have had significant success with this approach.
Yet despite all of the evidence, traditional remediation continues at many colleges, such as in South Carolina, and particularly in community colleges, which consist mostly of associate degree programs and enroll higher percentages of students from underrepresented groups. At all colleges, faculty members usually control curricula, and some faculty resist removal of traditional remediation based on their conviction, despite contrary evidence, that it is the best route to student success. As a result, many students are harmed, but particularly students from underrepresented groups.
Community colleges enroll more than 30 percent of American college students, and 80 percent of community college freshmen intend to obtain at least a bachelor’s degree -- an appropriate goal, because a bachelor’s is increasingly necessary for employment. However, six years after starting college, only 17 percent of community college freshmen have achieved a bachelor’s. Remediation is a large part of the reason for that.
Even if a community college student surmounts the hurdle of remediation, looming over the transition from a community college to a bachelor’s program is credit transfer, our second example of structural racism in higher education. The United States Government Accountability Office has estimated that, on average, transfer students lose 43 percent of their credits. Even when credits transfer, they may transfer as elective credits, which do not apply to any general education or major requirements for the bachelor’s degree. Thus, transfer students often have to retake courses, accumulating more total credits than their degrees require. Meanwhile, financial aid may not cover those excess credits.
Because students in community college associate programs are more likely to be from underrepresented groups, they are more likely to be harmed by lack of credit transfer. That harm is largely a consequence of colleges’ actions. If two students, equivalent in every measurable way, both want a bachelor’s, and one starts at a community college and the other in a bachelor’s program, the one who starts in a community college will be less likely to receive the bachelor’s. At least part of the reason is lack of credit transfer.
Colleges can address such problems, but doing so is fraught. Colleges usually receive revenue according to the number of credits they teach, and so they are incentivized to deny transfer credits. Faculty usually decide which credits transfer, and they are encouraged to deny credit for multiple reasons, including an administrator’s pressure and/or the faculty member’s own desire to keep teaching the same courses -- which must be sufficiently enrolled. Accordingly, often only a higher authority -- such as a college system central office, state Legislature (as in the case of Minnesota) or independent third party like the American Council on Education, with its course equivalency guides -- can facilitate policies that ensure credit transfer.
Linked Structural Problems
Linking the problems associated with traditional remediation and credit transfer is the fact that faculty members at some colleges won’t give transfer credit to college-level courses taught with corequisite remediation. So students assessed as needing remediation can either take a course they are likely to fail or they can take a course that won’t transfer.
As CUNY’s chief academic officer, I supported traditional remediation, including its being assigned according to placement tests and its only being taught (at CUNY) in community colleges. I thought that giving everyone the same test at the same time was the best, fairest way to assess their academic skills. (It isn’t.) And I thought that confining remediation to the community colleges was an efficient use of resources, enabling them to specialize in remedial courses while bachelor’s degree colleges specialized in nonremedial courses. I didn’t understand that such policies make it particularly hard for underrepresented students to obtain bachelor’s degrees. Now I understand how such practices constitute structural racism.
These inequities have been pointed out before. For example, remediation has been described as a civil rights issue, and transfer barriers have been characterized as violating educational justice. But they both constitute structural racism.
Higher education does not always involve equal opportunity. It is not immune to the structural racism that permeates other areas of our lives. We can decrease higher education’s structural racism by replacing all traditional remediation with corequisite support and by guaranteeing degree-applicable credit transfer. These concrete steps will help ensure that everyone has access to the many rewards that accrue with receipt of college degrees. And these steps should be taken by whoever has the ability to make change -- preferably, by faculty, but if they will not, by presidents, provosts and deans. And if they will not, such steps should be taken by boards, and if they will not, by legislators or accrediting agencies. Higher education equity is at stake.