Independent, objective, nonpartisan research
Press Release · November 18, 2020

Landmark Reform Boosted Community College Students’ Success and Helped Narrow—but Did Not Erase—Racial Disparities


SAN FRANCISCO, November 18, 2020—Implementation of a 2017 state law fundamentally reshaped placement and remediation at California’s community colleges and substantially increased student success in key “gateway” courses needed for transfer to a four-year college. Gains have been especially large among Latino and African American students, though notable racial disparities persist. Despite the educational and economic disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic, community colleges must meet the challenge of continuing to provide students the support needed to succeed in transfer-level courses and advance toward their degree. These are among the key findings of a report released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).

Assembly Bill 705 required community colleges across California to implement changes that would maximize the number of students completing transfer-level (or degree-appropriate) coursework in English or math within one year and also to use information like high school GPA or prior coursework as the primary criteria for placement recommendations. This law sought to dramatically reduce the number of students placed in remedial English and math courses, which had historically been a major barrier to students completing their degree, and also aimed to address racial/ethnic inequities in academic attainment.

This new PPIC report shows that implementation of AB 705 has broadened access to college composition (transfer-level English) and transfer-level math, allowing more students to successfully complete these gateway courses. This analysis also shows that colleges have made significant progress in boosting access to gateway courses among Latino and African American students in particular, though notable racial equity gaps remain.

“Through essential reforms to placement, colleges have made great progress in helping more students reach the important educational milestone of completing gateway courses,” said Marisol Cuellar Mejia, PPIC senior research associate and one of the report’s authors. “Our research underscores that when they’re given the chance, students can succeed in transfer-level courses, especially when colleges ensure they have the necessary information, guidance, and support.”

The report finds:

  • Access to college composition is now nearly universal. In fall 2019 (the deadline for colleges across the state to implement AB 705), 96 percent of students who took an English course for the first time enrolled directly in college composition. This is up from 69 percent the prior year and represents a major shift from just four years earlier, in 2015, when slightly more than a third (38%) began in transfer-level English.
  • Equity gaps in access to college composition have narrowed. Access gaps between racial/ethnic groups—measured by the difference in the share of first-time English students going directly into college composition—were virtually eliminated in fall 2019. Between fall 2015 and fall 2019, the gap between white and Latino students narrowed from 24 percentage points to just 1 percentage point, while the gap between white and African American students narrowed from 31 percentage points to 4 percentage points.
  • More students are successfully completing college composition. Well over half of first-time English takers (61%) completed college composition in one term in fall 2019. This is more than double the share in fall 2015 (27%). Overall, 57,000 more students completed college composition in fall 2019 than in fall 2015.
  • Access to transfer-level math more than doubled between fall 2018 and fall 2019. In fall 2019, more than three in four first-time math students (78%) enrolled in an introductory transfer-level math course. This is more than double the 37 percent who did so in fall 2018 and contrasts sharply with the 21 percent who did so in fall 2015.
  • Racial inequities in access to transfer-level math have narrowed. The gap in access to transfer-level math between white and Latino students narrowed from 12 percentage points in fall 2015 to just 4 percentage points in fall 2019, while the gap between white and African American students narrowed from 15 percentage points to 8 percentage points. Notably, racial equity gaps in access to transfer-level courses were larger in math than in English in fall 2019.
  • As with college composition, more students are successfully completing transfer-level math. In fall 2019, 40 percent of students who took a math course for the first time successfully completed transfer-level math, nearly three times the share in fall 2015 (14%). Overall, 31,000 additional students completed transfer-level math in fall 2019 than in fall 2015.
  • Corequisite courses—in which students receive additional academic support while enrolled in a transfer-level course—are more effective than traditional remediation. Students in corequisite models are far more likely—by about 30 or more percentage points—to complete a gateway course in one term than students who start in traditional remediation are to complete the course in one year. However, while most of California’s community colleges offer corequisite courses, only one in five students (about 20% of first-time students in English and 18% in math) enrolled in them.
  • Progress is across the board, but racial inequities persist. Overall, completion of transfer-level courses has risen by about 20 to 25 percentage points for all racial/ethnic groups. Still, Latinos and African Americans continue to see lower completion rates than their peers, even in corequisite courses.

“California’s community colleges have made important progress in closing racial equity gaps, but there is still much work to do,” said Olga Rodriguez, PPIC research fellow and report coauthor. “In light of AB 705, as well as the challenges brought on by the pandemic, colleges will continue to explore new and equitable approaches to placement, teaching, and student support and services. Future research can provide insights into the best strategies for helping students reach their goals.”

PPIC’s report reflects on the challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic has posed for community colleges and the pandemic’s implications for the implementation of AB 705 and related reforms. Interviews with community college faculty, staff, and administrators suggest that key components of AB 705 implementation—such as online assessment and placement processes and individualized, “just in time” academic and student supports—could transition well to the current distance-learning context. However, interviewees also highlighted the need to pay special attention to equity issues resulting from the lack of access to necessary technology, disparities in college readiness, economic disruptions, and other factors.

The report, A New Era of Student Access at California’s Community Colleges, is supported with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the College Futures Foundation, the ECMC Foundation, the Evelyn & Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, and the Sutton Family Fund. In addition to Cuellar Mejia and Rodriguez, the report is coauthored by PPIC researcher Hans Johnson. Research support was provided by Bonnie Brooks and Chidi Agu.

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.