Let’s finish the historic reform of remedial education and make good on our promise

Credit: Wadi Lissa on Unsplash

Students studying robotics at Glendale Community College in Glendale, California.

California’s community colleges are leading the way with a historic reform to end a legacy of gatekeeping that has held back nearly all students, particularly students of color.

Just 10 years ago, 85% of community college students in California were forced to begin in remedial education courses that don’t provide credits toward a degree or transfer, and too often didn’t lead to the completion of critical math and English courses.

The state took a bold step five years ago to transform remedial education by requiring community colleges to drop placement tests, which were poor predictors of college performance, and instead take a more holistic look at students’ high school coursework, grades and overall GPA in placing students in their first courses.

The goal was to follow the evidence and support the dreams of more students by starting their educational journey directly in college-level English and math, rather than requiring them to retake courses that they had already successfully completed in high school.

We’ve made extraordinary progress: One-year completion of transfer-level courses increased from 49% to 69% in English, and from 26% to 57% in mathematics, from fall 2015 to fall 2020, with substantial increases in completion for all students.  Furthermore, at the substantial majority of our colleges, all or nearly all students now start in transfer-level courses in English and mathematics.

Research shows that corequisite support, where students begin in college-level courses while getting additional support, is superior to making students take remedial courses that have been shown too often to hinder student progress rather than help it.

Across all California Community Colleges, this change is helping tens of thousands of students each year. This transformation improves their lives through education while they accelerate their progress toward a credential. And by unleashing their talent, this boosts the state’s economy.

Transforming remedial education is difficult work and requires a sustained investment and commitment to fidelity in implementation. A growing number of faculty are calling for support for this work and their efforts to develop innovative approaches and new pathways for students as they see the positive impacts for students. Leaders like Julianna Barnes, who recently served as president of Cuyamaca College prior to becoming chancellor at North Orange Community College District, said all Cuyamaca students were provided with the opportunity to take college-level math and college-level English.

“You know what we’re telling our students? It’s that they have the capacity to do this work,” Barnes said.

This progress needs to be recognized and accelerated.

Remedial education reform is one of the most significant civil rights reforms in higher education in recent years. Legislation currently awaiting the governor’s signature, Assembly Bill 1705 by Jacqui Irwin, D-Camarillo, who authored the original bill that set these reforms in motion, clarifies and solidifies the framework underpinning this historic shift that is unleashing students’ true potential. It deserves strong support.

Let’s not forget what’s at stake and what this transformation will mean for generations of Californians. Starting in the 1960s, the state opened up access to college in California and across the country. But while public colleges admitted more non-white, non-elite students, they also created remedial education systems that unfairly tracked and weeded out talented students.

The result was that millions of students who were, in fact, capable of success started college by being told that they weren’t college material and, to access their education, they were inaccurately put in long, remedial sequences on the basis of assessments that weren’t really related to performance in English and math courses. Most became discouraged and left with no degree.

We cannot afford to go back to that era.

The state has reached a crucial moment in this historic reform movement. With continued commitment, we may soon be able to make good on California’s promise of no longer excluding any student from higher education, by instead supporting all Californians to be successful in achieving their dreams and goals at California community colleges.


Daisy Gonzales is interim chancellor of the California Community Colleges, the largest system of higher education in the country with 1.8 million students. 

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