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Press Release · October 7, 2019

Broadening Access to Transfer-Level Courses Dramatically Increases Success for Community College Students


SAN FRANCISCO, October 7, 2019—California community colleges that have significantly expanded access to transfer-level courses—an important gateway to completing a degree or transferring to a four-year institution—have seen increased student success, particularly in English. Placing students directly into transfer-level courses, as opposed to requiring them to first take remedial sequences, boosts the share of students completing college composition and transfer-level math on the first try. Success in these courses is an important benchmark, since placement in remedial education has historically been a major barrier to students getting their degrees. These are among the key findings of a report released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).

These new insights into how the state’s community colleges are improving placement and student support come as colleges face a key deadline. The implementation schedule for Assembly Bill 705 (2017) sets fall term 2019 as the deadline for community colleges to enact changes intended to maximize the number of students completing transfer-level English or math/quantitative reasoning within one year.

“Expanding access to transfer-level courses and providing students with the necessary support is a game changer for California’s community college system,” said Marisol Cuellar Mejia, PPIC senior research associate and one of the report’s authors. “We looked at colleges that have already adopted the kinds of reforms called for by the new state law, and our findings should offer some reassurance that the potential benefits for students are real and sizeable.”

The report is based on data from the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office as well as interviews with college staff and faculty that explored changes that occurred between 2015 and 2018, the last year for which data are available.

The report finds:

  • Greater direct access to transfer-level courses increased the share of first-time students completing these courses within one term. At the 39 community colleges that significantly expanded access to transfer-level English, the share of first-time English students completing college composition in one term increased by 30 percentage points, from 24 percent in 2015 to 54 percent in 2018. Similarly, at the 16 colleges that broadened access to transfer-level math, the share of students completing transfer-level math in one term increased by 18 percentage points, from 17 percent in 2015 to 35 percent in 2018. Both increases were far larger than at colleges that did not substantially broaden access.
  • Significant expansion of access at some colleges drove gains across the community college system. Systemwide, there were large increases in the percentage of first-time English students starting directly in transfer-level English (68 percent in 2018, compared to 38 percent in 2015). In math, the broadening of access was less pronounced (43 percent in 2018, compared to 26 percent in 2015).
  • Expanded access to transfer-level courses increased success for students across all racial/ethnic groups, but equity gaps remain. In colleges that significantly broadened first-time English students’ access to college composition, the share completing the course in one term increased across all major racial/ethnic groups—and these gains were especially substantial among Latino and African American students. Broadened access to transfer-level math for first-time math students had similar results. Still, for the most part, achievement gaps in English and math between white students and Latino and African American students remain.
  • Providing concurrent support for first-time students placed directly into transfer-level courses can help boost student success. Many community colleges have implemented “co-requisite” courses, offered in tandem with transfer-level courses to provide academic support and assistance. Among first-time English students who started in a co-requisite course in fall 2018, nearly two-thirds (63 percent) completed college composition on their first try, a sizeable improvement over those who had started in a remedial course a year earlier. Although fewer colleges have offered co-requisite courses in math, completion rates of transfer-level math were also high, on average, at colleges that did so.

“As community colleges further expand access to college composition and transfer-level math, data collection and sharing, research, and evaluation will be critical to assess the impact of placement and curricular reforms on students, especially with an eye toward closing equity gaps,” said Olga Rodriguez, PPIC research fellow and report co-author. “AB 705 is not the end of the road. Colleges should be willing to make additional changes based on this evidence to make sure all students, regardless of their background, have the best chance to reach their educational goals.”

The report, What Happens When Colleges Broaden Access to Transfer-Level Courses? Evidence from California’s Community Colleges, is supported with funding from the California Acceleration Project and the Sutton Family Fund. In addition to Cuellar Mejia and Rodriguez, the report is co-authored by PPIC researcher Hans Johnson. Research support was provided by Sergio Sanchez and Bonnie Brooks.

About PPIC

The Public Policy Institute of California is dedicated to informing and improving public policy in California through independent, objective, nonpartisan research. We are a public charity. We do not take or support positions on any ballot measure or on any local, state, or federal legislation, nor do we endorse, support, or oppose any political parties or candidates for public office. Research publications reflect the views of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of our funders or of the staff, officers, advisory councils, or board of directors of the Public Policy Institute of California.