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Reforming California’s Community College System

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California’s community colleges have a strong record of providing access to higher education—they enroll more students than any other college system in the country, including large shares from groups that have been historically underrepresented. But improving student outcomes has long been a challenge: fewer than half (48%) of students earn a degree or certificate or transfer to a four-year college. The community college system is implementing a broad range of reforms designed to address these high rates of incompletion. These reforms focus on improving the student experience from initial enrollment to graduation and beyond.

From our perspective, the most dramatic reforms are in developmental (or remedial) education. In the past, a large majority of students entering the community college system have been placed in developmental education courses in English and/or math, and relatively few have gone on to complete transfer level courses. But the passage of Assembly Bill (AB) 705 in 2017 has required colleges to implement assessment and placement procedures, including new curricula that result in more students completing transfer-level courses in English and math within one year of entering. Our work has shown substantial improvements at colleges that have been early implementers of these new procedures. For example, 70% of students who entered directly into transfer-level courses in English with co-requisite support (a form of concurrent remediation) successfully completed the course, compared to 29% of those who began in a prerequisite developmental education course. Full implementation of AB 705 will occur this fall.

Other reforms aim to improve student pathways throughout community college and beyond. For example, the Guided Pathways program is designed to help students navigate through community college by helping them choose programs of study, mapping pathways to their end goals, and ensuring that they stay on those pathways. Another new program, the Associate Degree for Transfer, guarantees admission to a California State University campus in a major aligned to a student’s community college course of study. All of these reforms make equity a primary consideration. The student-centered funding formula links these efforts by tying a portion of district funding to equity and success outcomes, including completion of transfer-level math and English within the first year, certificates or degrees granted, and transfers to four-year universities, among others.

Implementing new programs and policies is not easy, and it will take time to assess the results. But, as PPIC has shown, many of these reforms are showing early promise.

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