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Report · November 2016

Preparing Students for Success in California’s Community Colleges

Hans Johnson, Marisol Cuellar Mejia, and Olga Rodriguez

This research was supported with funding from The Sutton Family Fund.

In its current form, developmental education may be one of the largest impediments to success in California’s community colleges. Each year, hundreds of thousands of students are deemed underprepared for college and placed into developmental (also known as remedial or basic-skills) courses. Yet most never earn a degree or certificate, or transfer to a four-year college. Helping these students succeed is key to closing the labor shortfall of 1.1 million degree holders projected in California by 2030.

This report presents a statistical portrait of developmental education, describing the enrollment patterns and characteristics of developmental education students, their journey through developmental coursework, and their academic outcomes. We find that:

  • Developmental education affects a lot of students. The vast majority (80%) of students entering community colleges enroll in at least one developmental course in math, English, or both during their college journey.
  • Underrepresented student groups are overrepresented in developmental courses. Eighty-seven 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.
  • Developmental sequences are lengthy, delaying students’ college careers. Students placed into developmental math take an average of 2.5 terms to complete the sequence, while developmental English students take an average of 1.9 terms. These developmental 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 in math complete the developmental sequence (31% for English).
  • Most developmental education students do not advance to and succeed in college coursework. Only about one-quarter of students (27%) who take a developmental math course eventually complete a college math course with a grade of C or better, and less than half (44%) of developmental English students do so.
  • Long-term outcomes are even worse. Only 16 percent of developmental education students earn a certificate or associate degree within six years. Twenty-four percent successfully transfer to four-year colleges.
  • Concerns about equity and poor outcomes have led to state funding and institutional reforms. Many colleges have redesigned developmental sequences by eliminating potential exit points where students often drop out and aligning coursework with students’ programs of study. Common approaches include compressing two-semester sequences into a single term and offering tailored pathways for different majors. Our review found that 65 percent of the state’s community colleges offered at least one redesigned developmental math course or sequence, with the scope and intensity of reforms varying a great deal across campuses. However, enrollment in redesigned courses represented only 8 percent of total enrollment in developmental math.
  • Reforms are also underway to improve placement accuracy into developmental education. These efforts focus on using a common assessment and measures like high school achievement data to supplement placement tests. The PPIC report Determining College Readiness in California’s Community Colleges: A Survey of Assessment and Placement Policies examines this set of reforms and provides a baseline of current policies in the system.

While recent reforms are promising, more rigorous research is needed to assess whether they improve student outcomes over the long term and narrow achievement gaps. Enhancing the efficacy of developmental education-and shortening how long it takes to complete-will eliminate key barriers preventing many community college students from achieving their academic goals. Identifying successful practices in developmental coursework and bringing them to scale will be essential to increase educational opportunity and equity in the state.


Completion Equity Higher Education Workforce Needs