California bill advances to clamp down further on community colleges’ remedial courses

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Dive Brief:

  • California lawmakers are moving forward with a bill that would further limit the ability of the state’s community colleges to enroll students in remedial classes — noncredit-bearing courses designed to burnish skills in areas like mathematics and reading that are often criticized for derailing progress toward a degree. 
  • Under the bill, two-year colleges could only place students into remedial courses in highly specific circumstances and must justify that decision with data. Community colleges would have to rely on factors like high school coursework and GPA when determining students’ course placement. And any one of those measures could be used to demonstrate that students should avoid remedial work. 
  • The bill builds on a law passed in 2017 that already mandated community colleges steer most students into transfer-level classes. 

Dive Insight:

Remedial or developmental education has come under fire for burdening students with unnecessary costs and offering them no progression toward a degree. 

Research from 2018 found students and families spend $1.3 billion on these classes a year. Yet they are less likely to graduate than their peers who did not take such courses. 

They’re costly for colleges too, at an estimated $7 billion annually.

Thus, institutions have begun to shift away from remedial classes. In March, Louisiana’s public colleges did away with developmental courses, opting instead to direct students into for-credit classes and provide them more academic support.

A 2014 law in Florida also made placement exams and remedial classes optional.

California in 2017 passed its law saying the state’s community colleges should only funnel students into remedial courses if they have evidence that they’re highly unlikely to succeed in college-level classes.

Two-year institutions have to “maximize the probability that a student will enter and complete transfer-level coursework in English and mathematics within a one-year timeframe,” that law also states.

However, not every community college in the state appears to follow the intent of the law. A report released in June by the California Acceleration Project — an organization that lobbies for tailored use of remedial classes — found 38 of the state’s 115 community colleges were enrolling students with a strong high school record into developmental math courses. Nine others didn’t submit adequate data to evaluate.

The group pinpointed 47 community colleges that intended to continue offering remedial courses, noting many had phased them out for fall 2022.

The new bill would further narrow the cases in which community colleges could put students into remedial courses. It would also make clear that students should not repeat English and math courses they passed in high school.

It’s being backed by a collection of civil rights and college access organizations, including notable names like The Institute for College Access & Success and the University of Southern California Race and Equity Center.

“Equitable placement and completion reform at community colleges have proven to work by producing unprecedented gains for students. This policy is a critical lever in meeting the goals of the California Community Colleges system’s Vision for Success and ensuring equitable recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic,” they wrote in a joint letter in July.

However, the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges has opposed the measure, arguing it too heavily limits student choice. 

The bill passed the State Assembly in May, and is currently being considered by the Senate. Most recently, the Senate’s appropriations committee approved it this month.

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