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Report · October 2023

Tracking Progress in Community College Access and Success

Marisol Cuellar Mejia, Cesar Alesi Perez, Sidronio Jacobo, Fernando Garcia, and Olga Rodriguez

Supported with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Sutton Family Fund

Key Takeaways

In 2019, landmark legislation (Assembly Bill or AB 705) transformed the community college landscape in California, dramatically increasing direct access to introductory transfer-level courses in English and math. Three years later, however, it has become clear that this was only the first step in truly overhauling the transfer pathway. In this report, we examine student outcomes through the fall 2022 term, shedding light on both the immense progress made and necessary areas of future reform.

  • Outcomes among first-time English students have remained stable after substantial initial growth in both access and course completion. Overall, from fall 2018 to fall 2022, the share of first-time English students starting directly in college composition increased from 68 percent to 99 percent, and the share of first-time English students successfully completing the course in one term rose from 47 percent to 59 percent. Much of this progress occurred in fall 2019, the first term of systemwide implementation of AB 705.
  • Outcomes among first-time math students improved in fall 2022 after stalling in the two years prior. From fall 2018 to fall 2022, direct access to transfer-level math increased from 40 percent to 96 percent, while one-term course completion rose from 24 percent to 51 percent. Gains were largest in fall 2019 and in fall 2022.
  • As colleges approach universal access to transfer-level courses, their focus must shift to proactively utilizing other strategies to produce strong and equitable completion rates. About four in ten first-time English students and half of first-time math students do not pass the transfer-level course in one term. Equity gaps in completion remain almost as high as they were in 2019: in transfer-level math, the white-Black gap in one-term course completion is 22 percentage points and the white-Latino gap is 17 points. Expanded access has been driving progress thus far, but moving forward, other strategies—both inside and outside the classroom—will be necessary.
  • Some colleges have increased completion rates and reduced equity gaps. Institutional engagement and collaboration, including a systemwide growth mindset, effective student supports and resources, and a commitment to data-driven decision-making, are key to student success, according to our interviews. Targeted initiatives, such as those aimed to support Black students, can also be effective when they are designed to address specific student needs.
  • Outcomes among corequisite students vary widely across colleges. In fall 2022, one-term completion rates in corequisite models—which enroll students directly in transfer-level courses with concurrent academic support—declined in college composition and transfer-level math, and statewide enrollment in these courses remains relatively low. However, many colleges have seen success with corequisites, especially among Black and Latino students, highlighting their potential promise.
  • Longer-term outcomes held steady through the pandemic. Three-year outcomes, including transfer rates, degree attainment, and unit accumulation, for first-time math students in fall 2019, the first cohort to be affected by AB 705, are similar to those of earlier students. This is a positive finding since recent students’ experiences have been disrupted by the pandemic, which caused an overall decline in community college enrollment, persistence, and success.

Recent legislation in California (AB 1705) aims to address uneven implementation of AB 705, persistent equity gaps, and produce stronger success rates. Additional systemwide and campus-level reforms to better support students in completing introductory transfer-level courses will help realize the full potential of AB 705 and ensure that all students are a step closer to achieving their academic goals.


Remedial education reform has transformed the landscape at California Community Colleges (CCC), which serve 1.8 million students, most of whom are from low-income and historically underrepresented backgrounds. In 2019, landmark legislation, Assembly Bill (AB) 705, led to a dramatic rise in direct enrollment and achievement in transfer-level English and math courses for all student groups (Cuellar Mejia et al. 2020; Brohawn, Newell, and Fagioli 2021). These gateway courses are a critical early milestone in the transfer pathway, which provides students with an opportunity to pursue a four-year degree and improves their chances at economic mobility (Johnson and Cuellar Mejia 2020). Indeed, the benefits of obtaining a bachelor’s degree are well-documented, including higher lifetime earnings, greater job stability, and improved social mobility (Cuellar Mejia et al. 2023). Prior to the reform, the vast majority of community college students were required to take remedial courses with high attrition rates; these courses slowed down or halted students’ academic journeys.

While AB 705 has led to substantial progress, more work was needed. An analysis of first-year outcomes showed that the implementation of AB 705 was uneven across colleges, especially in math. At one in five colleges, a third or more of first-time math students in fall 2020 were still either required or allowed to enroll in below-transfer-level courses (Cuellar Mejia et al. 2021; Hern, Snell, and Henson 2020). What’s more, many of those students had already taken such courses in high school and had often passed them (Park, Ngo, and Melguizo 2019).

In September 2022, Governor Newsom signed into law Assembly Bill 1705 to support a comprehensive and equitable implementation of AB 705 (see text box). To achieve this, the legislature appropriated $64 million in one-time funding in the 2022 Budget Act to establish the California Community College Equitable Placement, Support, and Completion funding allocation. These funds are intended to assist colleges in developing corequisite support models, providing professional development and technical assistance, aligning concurrent student support services, and creating innovative course sequences that reduce possible exit points for students (Lowe 2023).

The importance of this investment should not be overlooked. As we will show in this report, initial increases in successful completion of transfer-level math and English—courses that satisfy general education requirements for transfer to the University of California (UC) and California State University (CSU)—have been, for the most part, driven by increases in direct access to these courses. As we approach universal access, additional improvements in completion will need to come from changes within the classroom as well as a broader set of student supports.

Currently, there are still several areas where more information is needed to understand the reach and potential of the changes brought on by AB 705. In this report, we tackle two of them.

First, little is known about the reform’s longer-term effects. Ultimately, completing introductory transfer-level English and math is just one step along the transfer pathway. Evaluating the impact of AB 705 on students’ trajectories beyond this early momentum point is essential. To this end, we use longitudinal student-level data to provide a descriptive comparison of longer-term outcomes—including unit accumulation, degree attainment, and transfer to a four-year institution—among student cohorts before and after AB 705. In interpreting these outcomes, it is important to keep in mind that the pandemic, which hit the country during the first year of AB 705 implementation, disrupted student enrollment, housing, and finances, changing the college experience in significant and meaningful ways. Although this limits our ability to causally interpret changes beyond fall 2019, our analysis of post-2019 outcomes provides an important look at how different student groups have fared under our new reality.

Second, racial/ethnic equity gaps in successful completion of transfer-level math and English courses persist and continue to be one of the biggest challenges that colleges face. We employ a case study analysis to begin to fill gaps in current research and uncover the strategies and initiatives that might be effective in promoting success among underrepresented groups. Specifically, we interviewed officials at 10 colleges that have narrowed Latino-white or Black-white racial equity gaps in successful completion of transfer-level math courses. For simplicity, we focus on promoting success in transfer-level math completion, since historically math has been a greater obstacle for students, but many of the takeaways are equally relevant for success in transfer-level English.

This report begins by describing trends in short-term outcomes under AB 705, including direct enrollment in transfer-level English and math, course completion, corequisite course success, and racial equity gaps. We then tackle the two key areas of research noted above, namely longer-term student outcomes and strategies for improving racial equity gaps. Finally, we conclude with recommendations drawn from this research.

Assembly Bill 1705


AB 705 has dramatically transformed the community college landscape in California—expanding access to a key early milestone in the transfer pathway—but more work is needed to ensure that students can succeed in gateway transfer-level courses and make meaningful academic progress. Promisingly, Governor Newsom signed AB 1705 into law in September 2022, and the legislature appropriated $64 million in one-time funding to better support a comprehensive and equitable implementation of AB 705. The results presented in this report shed light as to why this investment is so critical.

Below we present three recommendations that we believe are key as the state moves forward.

As California’s community colleges approach universal access to transfer-level courses, using evidence-based strategies to improve completion rates and racial equity must be the next priority. The implementation of AB 705 led to a steep increase in direct access to transfer-level English and math courses that translated into a significant rise in the number and share of students successfully completing this important milestone. However, completion rates remain relatively low overall—only 59 percent of first-time English students and 51 percent of first-time math students successfully complete these courses in one term. Furthermore, racial equity gaps are large and have yet to be meaningfully reduced. In transfer-level math, the one-term course completion rate for white students is 22 percentage points higher than for Black students and 17 points higher than for Latino students.

Since the initial implementation of AB 705 in fall 2019, increases in access have been the main driver of improvements in successful completion of transfer-level courses. But as colleges approach universal access, they need to find new ways to further advance student success. As part of this effort, colleges must prioritize identifying and implementing supports that effectively address the academic and non-academic needs of their students. This is an inherently challenging task and will likely require a range of initiatives, including providing professional development and technical assistance for instructors, as well as improving concurrent student support services.

Implementing well-designed corequisites should also play an important role—but not the only one. Currently, we find mixed evidence of their effectiveness, with some colleges seeing success with corequisite models and other colleges not seeing promising outcomes. Considering the legislature’s recent approval of a one-time funding stream for corequisite models, professional development, and student services to support the comprehensive implementation of AB 705, the community college system should monitor how funding is allocated and the subsequent impact on student outcomes.

Successful college initiatives can help inform additional campus-level reform. Our qualitative work identifies common elements of equity-focused reform that have helped some colleges improve outcomes and racial equity for Black and Latino students, such as an organizational growth mindset and the provision of effective and targeted supports for students and instructors alike. The need for, and impact of, targeted initiatives, however, seem to vary. Our case studies suggest that when targeted student populations are smaller, strategies that highlight and address specific needs can be effective, especially when they are well-resourced and contextualized to the experiences of students at their particular campus. At the same time, institution-wide strategies may be helpful when populations are large. Overall, colleges should base their approach on the specific students they serve, including developing initiatives or affinity groups centered on supporting specific populations of underrepresented students.

Many colleges that we interviewed cited several high-touch, holistic, and student-centered programs that they believe have specifically benefited students of color at their campus, including promise programs, Umoja, and MESA. It should be noted, however, that other colleges, including those with persistently low throughput rates and high equity gaps, have also adopted these or similar initiatives. Accordingly, what programs successful colleges are implementing may be less important than how they are implementing and leveraging them to effectively address the needs of specific groups of students. To this end, expanding communication and collaboration across programs and colleges may be necessary to eliminate statewide equity gaps in gateway course completion that have thus far limited the potential impact of AB 705.

More research is needed to understand the longer-term effects of AB 705 and identify further areas of reform for the transfer pathway. The pandemic has confounded our ability to isolate the impact of AB 705 on degree completion and transfer for students who took their first math or English course in fall 2019, the first term of statewide implementation. On one hand, given that the pandemic severely reduced enrollment and persistence, it is encouraging that we did not see a meaningful negative impact on three-year transfer rates, degree attainment, and unit accumulation compared to earlier cohorts. These very early results suggest that AB 705 may have buffered the impact of the pandemic on transfer, but they could also suggest that significantly broadening access to gateway math and English alone will not guarantee dramatic gains in longer-term academic success.

As more years of data become available, we will be able to examine the outcomes of students for whom the pandemic had a lesser impact. Moreover, once the state’s cradle-to-career data system is up and running, we will have information on the academic preparation of community college students (i.e., high school performance measures), which will give us the opportunity to examine more thoroughly the effect of AB 705 reforms on academic momentum, degree completion, and transfer.

California’s community colleges have taken a momentous stride forward and have given students a better chance of succeeding in their academic goals. In the coming years, additional efforts to support students in completing not only the early milestones for transfer but also every other step along the way will help amplify the impact of AB 705 and further promote student success.


Access Completion COVID-19 Equity Higher Education K–12 Education