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Report · April 2019

English as a Second Language in California’s Community Colleges

Olga Rodriguez, Sarah Bohn, Laura Hill, and Bonnie Brooks

This research was supported with funding from Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the College Futures Foundation, and the Sutton Family Fund.

Due in large part to their accessibility and affordability, California’s community colleges (CCCs) play a central role in educating students who are not fully proficient in English. While there are many motivations for learning English, the economic benefits of English language skills are clear: in an economy that increasingly demands skilled workers, effective ESL programs can facilitate social and economic mobility for non-native speakers and their families.

This report aims to fill the gap in research on ESL programs at California’s community colleges and the effectiveness of reforms aimed at improving student success. A number of colleges have implemented curricular reforms in recent years-accelerating coursework, integrating skills courses, and the like. These reforms are likely to become more widespread in the wake of Assembly Bill (AB) 705, signed into law in 2017. In addition to mandating that community colleges amend how students are placed in remedial courses, AB 705 requires that credit ESL sequences-which offer credit-bearing courses for which students pay tuition-maximize the probability that students enter and complete transfer-level English coursework within three years.

Our research suggests that while many colleges are moving in the right direction, more could be done. Specifically, we find that:

  • Most degree-seeking ESL students do not successfully complete transfer-level English; those who begin at lower proficiency levels are especially likely to drop off the pathway. We find that 34 percent of all degree-seeking ESL students who first enrolled between 2010 and 2012 successfully completed transfer-level English within six years-but this share includes 56 percent of those who began one level below transfer-level English and just 9 percent of those who began eight levels below transfer.
  • Nearly half of colleges offer no more than five levels of ESL, which would theoretically allow students to complete transfer-level English in the sixth term. Still, only 20 percent of students who started five levels below transfer completed this course within six years and even fewer did so within three years.
  • Colleges have made great strides in moving away from a traditional approach-which teaches language skills such as reading and writing separately-to an integrated approach that teaches multiple language skills in a single course. Our findings suggest that all students benefit from the integration of language skills in ESL coursework.
  • Many colleges offer ESL courses that are transferable to UC and CSU. Students are benefiting from the opportunity to make progress toward degree and transfer goals while gaining proficiency in academic English. Recent efforts to secure humanities credit for advanced ESL courses may further boost the impact of transferable ESL coursework.
  • Many colleges still offer ESL sequences that require students to complete developmental English coursework prior to enrolling to transfer-level English. Our findings indicate that these colleges would see a boost in outcomes if ESL sequences led directly to transfer-level English. This structural change is supported by AB 705, which recognizes that instruction in ESL is distinct from remediation in English.

Our analysis suggests that current ESL program reforms hold promise. As colleges across the state move toward compliance with AB 705, more research is needed to determine whether new approaches to ESL assessment and placement and acceleration help improve the outcomes of diverse groups of students.


Access Completion Equity Higher Education Population