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Equity and Remedial Education at Community Colleges

PPIC research has shown that students from groups that are historically underrepresented in higher education are more likely to take a remedial—or developmental—course at some point in their college career. Our research also shows that these students are less likely to complete a college-level course in math or English—and less likely to meet their educational goals. At a time when California faces a shortfall of college-educated workers, this has profound implications for the state’s future. Given that more than half of Latinos and African Americans who pursue higher education attend community college, policymakers need to focus on closing access and achievement gaps.

A recent PPIC report found that 87% of both Latino and African American community college students took at least one developmental math or English course, compared to 70% of Asian and 73% of white students. Likewise, 86% of recipients of fee waivers from the California Community Colleges Board of Governors (BOGW) or Pell Grants—our proxy for low-income status—took at least one developmental math or English course.

A closer look reveals that Latino, African American, and low-income students are likely to be placed in developmental education at lower levels than other groups of students. This requires students to take a longer sequence of developmental courses—up to four semesters’ worth—and dramatically alters college trajectories. African American and Latino students make up 61% of students who enter the developmental math sequence four levels below college ready, but only 41% of students who begin one level below. Similarly, the share of low-income developmental math students who start four levels below college ready (82%) is significantly higher than the share that begin one level below (64%). This means that Latino, African American, and low-income students are more likely to spend valuable time and financial aid on courses that do not count toward a degree or transfer.

Equity issues are apparent not only in students’ participation in developmental education, but also in their outcomes. When we examine the completion of college-level math and English courses among students who started out in developmental education, we find that rates are lower for most underrepresented groups. For example, 39% of Asian students and 30% of white students who took a developmental math passed a college-level math course, compared to 24% of Latino and 14% of African American students. The same pattern holds true for English, where 59% of Asian students and 49% of white students successfully completed a college-level English course, compared to 42% of Latino and 28% of African American students. However, low-income students who enrolled in developmental education courses completed college-level courses (26% math and 45% English) at about the same rate as developmental students overall (27% math and 44% in English).

It is also important to look at the assessment and placement policies that place students into developmental courses. Our research found that these policies vary widely across the state’s 113 community colleges. As a result, some Latino and African American students may be enrolling in developmental education at higher rates, especially in math, simply because they attend colleges that set higher cut-off scores for placement into college courses.

Our recent findings suggest that developmental education, which is intended to help students succeed in college, may actually be contributing to college achievement and completion gaps. A multipronged approach that improves developmental education courses and streamlines assessment and placement policies can lead to more equitable student outcomes.

Learn more

Read Preparing Students for Success in California’s Community Colleges
Read Determining College Readiness in California’s Community Colleges: A Survey of Assessment and Placement Policies
Visit the PPIC Higher Education Center

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