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How Community College Reforms Could Help English Learners

Olga Rodriguez, Bonnie Brooks October 3, 2019
photo - Diverse Students on Campus

Due in large part to their mission of access and affordability, community colleges play a key role in educating immigrant students, especially those who are English Learners. In 2016–17, more than 58,000 first-time community college students in California enrolled in English as a Second Language (ESL) courses.

For many students, taking ESL courses may be linked to the desire to improve their socioeconomic prospects. Indeed, community college students who earn a credential or transfer to get a four-year degree are well positioned to climb the economic ladder. In an economy that increasingly demands skilled workers, there is tremendous untapped potential in increasing the educational attainment—and economic trajectories—of ESL students.

California’s community colleges have undertaken several reforms that aim to improve student success and close equity gaps. These reforms—spurred by AB 705 and the new Guided Pathways framework—present a ripe opportunity to help more ESL students get on the path to completing college composition, a requirement to earn a college credential or transfer.

These initiatives are primarily focused on addressing the needs of students who intend to pursue a degree or transfer. However, our most recent research finds that about two-thirds of ESL students (66%) are not on track to do so—and may consequently be left out of the reforms. (We consider students on track if they take any ESL course required to access college composition and at least one course other than ESL or English.)

ESL students who are not on track are more likely to come from historically underrepresented groups. For instance, we find that compared to students taking ESL courses needed for college composition, those not taking these courses are more likely to be older and Latino. They are also more likely to have unknown citizenship status (a possible signal of being undocumented) and to have not graduated high school.

figure - ESL Students Who Are Not on Track To Complete a Degree Are More Likely To Come from Underrepresented Groups

As colleges across the state reform their ESL sequences and programs of study, it will be critical to ensure that all students have the opportunity to earn a degree or transfer. The two-thirds of ESL students currently not on track to do so are the most vulnerable. These students have already taken the major step of enrolling in college. To improve their likelihood of advancing, colleges could provide clearer and more effective ESL sequences and degree and transfer pathways, as well as stronger student supports, including advising, placement, and information about available degrees and certificates.

Some colleges are already working on these issues. Initiatives like the Guided Pathways ESL Milestone certificates at Cypress College—the result of AB 705 and Guided Pathways efforts—present a unique example of how colleges can structure ESL programs and certificates to help English Learners get on a pathway toward a college credential.

Finally, it is important to acknowledge that there are some ESL students who take ESL coursework for reasons unrelated to a degree. As colleges redesign their ESL programs, working alongside non-credit ESL programs, adult education schools, and community-based ESL programs could help ensure that colleges are keeping the diverse needs of ESL students in mind.

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