Independent, objective, nonpartisan research
Report · October 2019

What Happens When Colleges Broaden Access to Transfer-Level Courses? Evidence from California’s Community Colleges

Marisol Cuellar Mejia, Olga Rodriguez, and Hans Johnson

This research was supported with funding from the California Acceleration Project and the Sutton Family Fund.

The majority of California community college students never complete their education. For many students, the largest obstacle to success has been remedial-or developmental-education. Until recently, the vast majority of entering students were placed in developmental courses, and relatively few went on to complete transfer-level courses in English and math. Several colleges responded to this longstanding challenge by experimenting with placement and curricular reforms.

In 2017, new legislation (AB 705) was enacted to broaden the scope and accelerate the pace of change. This landmark reform, which fundamentally changes placement and remedial support system-wide, has the potential to improve long-term student trajectories. As of fall 2019, this law requires all community colleges to use high school records to place students in English and math courses, opening the door to transfer-level courses for the majority of entering students.

This reform has moved the community college system into uncharted territory. However, a group of colleges that have already significantly broadened access to transfer-level courses can shed light on what we might expect. Our research shows that these colleges saw dramatic gains in student success, with large increases in the number of first-time students completing transfer-level courses in English and math. Gains were experienced by all students, including Latinos and African Americans. Colleges that offered students support courses at the same time they took transfer-level courses, a practice known as co-requisite remediation, had especially strong results. This means that thousands of students who in the past would have started college in remedial courses are now bypassing those courses and succeeding in transfer-level courses. Specifically, we find:

  • System-wide, we saw especially large increases in the percentage of first-time students starting directly in transfer-level English (68% in 2018, compared to 38% in 2015). Increases in access were driven by a group of 39 colleges. Gains in math were also substantial (43% in 2018, compared to 26% in 2015), but only 16 colleges significantly broadened access.
  • Increases in access translated into increases in student success. For example, the share of first-time English students completing college composition in one term increased 30 percentage points in the group of 39 colleges that significantly broadened access, from 24 percent in 2015 to 54 percent in 2018. Similarly, the share of first-time math students completing transfer-level math in a term increased by 18 percentage points.
  • Success improved among all students, including Latinos and African Americans. However, equity gaps remain.
  • Students who enrolled in transfer-level courses with co-requisite support had much higher completion rates than those who started in traditional developmental education courses.

Moving forward, data collection and sharing, research, and evaluation will be more important than ever. It will be crucial to identify any groups of students who are not successful under the new model; evaluate whether and how the new policies are affecting racial/ethnic achievement gaps; determine which kinds of concurrent support work best; and identify any unintended consequences of the law. Colleges should be willing to make additional changes based on this evidence. System-wide, the Chancellor’s Office should play a role in supporting colleges and ensuring transparency and accountability.


Access Completion Equity Higher Education