Independent, objective, nonpartisan research
Press Release · November 9, 2016

Remedial Courses in Community Colleges Are Major Hurdle to Success

Few of the 80 Percent of Students Deemeed Unprepared Go on To Earn a Degree or Certificate

SAN FRANCISCO, November 9, 2016—The vast majority of students entering California’s community colleges are identified as unprepared for college and placed in remedial courses, known as developmental education. These classes aim to provide students with the skills they need to succeed in college-level work. But in its current form, developmental education may be one of the biggest obstacles to success in the state’s community colleges. Most of the hundreds of thousands of students who enroll in these classes each year never move on to earn a degree or certificate, or transfer to a four-year college.

These are among the key findings of a report released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).

The report finds that 80 percent of entering students take at least one developmental course in math, English, or both. Students are placed as many as four levels below college-level coursework. Math is the greater challenge for entering students: 65 percent of developmental education students enroll in a developmental math course, compared to 54 percent in developmental English. Most developmental math students (73%) begin the sequence of classes at least two levels below college level.

Latino, African American, and low-income students are overrepresented in developmental courses: 87 percent of both Latino and African American students enroll in developmental education, compared to 70 percent of Asian American and 74 percent of white students. Among low-income students, 86 percent enroll in developmental coursework.

The report provides a statistical portrait of developmental education in the state’s 113 community colleges, which make up the largest public higher education system in the country. It focuses on students who started their college careers in the 2009–10 academic year and who attempted at least one developmental math or English course. The authors tracked students for six years. The report finds that:

  • Developmental course sequences are lengthy, delaying students’ college careers. Students placed into developmental math take an average of 2.5 semesters to complete the sequence, while students in developmental English average 1.9 semesters. These courses cannot be applied toward a degree.
  • Attrition is high. Only 44 percent of developmental math students successfully complete the sequence, while 60 percent of developmental English students do so. Students who start lower in the sequence are much more likely to drop out: only 17 percent of students who start four levels below college-level math complete the sequence, while 31 percent of developmental English students do so.
  • Most developmental education students do not advance to college coursework or succeed in it. Only about 27 percent of students who take a developmental math course eventually complete a college math course with a grade of C or better. Fewer than half—44 percent—of developmental English students do so.
  • Long-term outcomes are even worse. Just 16 percent of developmental education students earn a certificate or associate degree within six years, and 24 percent successfully transfer to four-year colleges.

“Developmental education that is not effective comes at a high cost to students—not only in tuition and fees for courses that do not count toward a degree, but also in time and lost income,” said Marisol Cuellar Mejia, PPIC research associate and a coauthor of the report. “It is also costly to California, which needs more college-educated workers and relies on community colleges as an entry point to higher education.”

The report, Preparing Students for Success in California’s Community Colleges, is coauthored by Olga Rodriguez, PPIC research fellow, and Hans Johnson, senior research fellow and director of the PPIC Higher Education Center.

There is also good news in the report. Concerns about equity and poor results have prompted two-thirds of the state’s community colleges to start implementing reforms. A number of colleges are aligning developmental courses with students’ preferred programs of study or have redesigned course sequences—for example, compressing two-semester sequences into a single semester.

However, so far these reforms have affected a small proportion of students. Enrollment in redesigned courses represented only 8.3 percent of total enrollment in developmental math courses in 2014–15. While there is promising evidence to support developmental math reforms in California, more research is needed to assess whether they improve student outcomes over the long term and narrow achievement gaps.

An accompanying PPIC report, Determining College Readiness in California’s Community Colleges: A Survey of Assessment and Placement Policies, looks at assessment and placement policies and efforts to improve them. It finds wide variation in the way students are identified as college ready and thus not required to take remedial courses. For example, while more than half of colleges use the Accuplacer test to assess college readiness in math, cut-off scores qualifying students as college ready ranged from 25 to 96 out of 120. A student scoring 58 would be placed out of remedial courses at only half of these colleges. Reform efforts focus on promoting greater consistency and accuracy through a common assessment and multiple measures, such as high school grades, to supplement placement tests.

“Assessment and placement policies should help students reach their academic goals—not stand in their way,” said Rodriguez. “A more equitable and efficient system to determine college readiness is a vital step that will benefit millions of students across the state.”

Both PPIC reports are supported with funding from The Sutton Family Fund.


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.