In summary

A 2017 law started to phase out remedial courses at community colleges, but while there’s been progress, many students still end up taking classes experts say they don’t need.

When Veronica Garcia entered community college in 2008 at City College of San Francisco, she had to start her math and English classes three tiers below the level students need to ultimately transfer into the University of California and California State University.

Once she cleared her remedial obligations, which took three years, Garcia passed both transfer-level math and English on her first attempts. She needed four years to finish her studies at the community college, eventually transferring to San Francisco State and earning her bachelor’s in two years.

“I never had a counselor or a mentor or anyone else tell me, no you’re capable of so much more,” she said of her time in community college, a trying period when she was raising two kids, caring for her sick mother, and juggling a full course load. The years in remedial classes pulled her from quality time with her loved ones. “There were just a lot of things that I missed out on.“

Garcia’s experience was one of countless tales that, coupled with lots of data showing the lack of efficacy of remedial classes, spurred the passage of a 2017 law that required community colleges to phase out remedial classes unless they could improve the classes or prove they were effective. 

“The more that we dumb down students and the more that we believe that they’re not capable of doing something, then they won’t necessarily step up to the challenge”

veronica garcia, former community college transfer

Despite the law, AB 705, many students still end up taking remedial courses. 

Twenty-two percent of first-time students took remedial math courses in 2019, the latest year for which data is available, and more than half of California’s community colleges offered more than a fifth of their introductory math classes at the remedial level. Some colleges even offered more remedial courses than the year prior, according to a December report from the California Acceleration Project.

The remedial courses are also an equity issue: Black and Latino students were more likely than white and Asian students to take remedial math courses.

“What is it going to take, what do we need to do?” asked Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, during a meeting last month of the California Community College Board of Governors. “Because if there is one kid, one aspiring kid in this state, who has a dream of college, who gets put into a remedial course when they don’t need to be there, that’s too many.”

Uneven progress

In some ways the law is working as intended: This year at least five colleges are requiring some students to enroll in remedial math courses, according to a CalMatters analysis, down from 26 in fall 2019, Public Policy Institute of California told Calmatters.

Additionally, in 2019, the number of students able to take a transfer-level course without needing a remedial one first had increased by 100,000 for English students and 73,000 for math students since 2015. And though the percentage of students passing these transfer level courses has declined compared to past years, tens of thousands more students are completing these courses because so many more are being allowed to take them directly, according to a report released last month by the RP Group

Statewide progress has been uneven in part because the system allowed colleges a two-year window to “innovate” with remedial courses in 2019. If colleges can’t prove their remedial approach is better for students by this July, they’ll have to adopt the system’s default standard, which doesn’t call for students to take remedial courses.

The system’s chancellor, Eloy Ortiz Oakley, told CalMatters this month that he’s “prepared” to “get to a point when we are requiring colleges to do away with remedial courses.” He didn’t want to set a firm date because if colleges continue removing their remedial offerings, no action will be necessary. 

How we got here

For decades, colleges have often forced students to enroll in remedial courses under the impression the experience would better prepare students for more advanced courses. Remedial courses can take up multiple semesters of the student’s time and often rehash material already covered in high school and even middle school. The majority of students in these remedial classes failed to ever reach and pass the all-important transferable courses.

Data championed by the community college system leadership showed that students were more likely to pass a transfer-level course within a year if they enrolled in it directly, rather than taking a remedial course first. That held true even among students who had low high school GPAs and across all racial and ethnic groups. Similar findings were true for students who entered so-called “corequisite” classes, which have surged in popularity in recent years. These classes are paired with transfer-level courses and come with an extra period of instruction or tutoring to help students who’d otherwise be in remedial courses. 

Data showed that students were more likely to pass a transfer-level course within a year if they enrolled in it directly, rather than taking a remedial course first.

Garcia — who’s now a coordinator at Students Making a Change, an organization that advocates for remedial education reform and other issues of equity — said that had she been allowed to take corequisite courses instead of years of remediation, she would have passed her transfer-level math and English requirements from the get go. 

“The more that we dumb down students and the more that we believe that they’re not capable of doing something, then they won’t necessarily step up to the challenge,” she said.

Student options

That any colleges continue to offer remedial courses at all frustrates Katie Hern, an English professor at Skyline College in Silicon Valley and a leading advocate for ending remedial courses as co-founder of the California Acceleration Project. 

“If all the research shows that every student group studied has higher completion if they begin at a transfer-level class, then why are we using our resources that way?” she asked. The risk is that students self-place themselves without realizing a transfer course with corequisite support is available.

But completely ditching remedial courses is a mistake, said Mendocino College math professor Leslie Banta. 

San Francisco native Veronica Garcia sits for a portrait at Bernal Heights park on Feb. 18, 2021. Garcia says when she entered San Francisco City College in 2008 she was required to take remedial classes which caused her to take more than four years before she was able to transfer to a four-year university. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters
Garcia is now a coordinator at Students Making a Change, an organization that advocates for remedial education reform and other issues of equity. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters

While she encourages students to take transfer-level courses, not all of them want to, she said, out of anxiety over math or a desire to learn the basics first. And though intermediate algebra doesn’t transfer, the class satisfies math requirements for associate degrees. But so does statistics, which is transferable. That allows students who decide to pursue a bachelor’s later in their journey a head start by clearing a key milestone, critics of remedial courses point out.

Mendocino College requires a small share of students to first take intermediate algebra — a below-transfer class — before taking the first of the transfer-level math courses students need to major in business and STEM. The rule applies to students who didn’t take algebra II in high school, though students can appeal by citing related work experience, for example. 

Requiring intermediate algebra stems from the fact that the local high schools only require one year of algebra to graduate, not two, Banta said. That the chancellor’s office created placement policies for the whole state overlooked that regional complexity, she and other math faculty contend

Santa Barbara City College has a similar policy for precalculus, which affects about 50 students. Most students taking math in community college pursue statistics rather than math for STEM because their majors in the humanities and social sciences don’t require the calculus route.

“We wanted to have a pathway for students who maybe hadn’t considered STEM before or who had a non-traditional preparation,” Banta said.

Mendocino doesn’t have corequisites for its STEM-related math courses, such as precalculus, even as many colleges do. Banta said Mendocino could create them if data from their two-year period of innovation indicate the college needs them. 

Some college websites don’t make it clear that students no longer have to take a remedial class first. Columbia College is working to update its website to reflect that, said Brian K. Sanders, the vice president of instruction there. “You should not need to email someone to get an answer to a simple question like this.”

Whether colleges require some kind of remedial math or not, a sizable share are below the system average of students taking transfer-level math. In fall 2019, 78% of students systemwide took a transfer-level math course as their first math course, according to Public Policy Institute of California data. Eleven colleges were below 60%.

Oakley, the system chancellor, said he’s not making excuses for any college.

“We expect all of our colleges to pick up the pace.”

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Mikhail Zinshteyn

Mikhail Zinshteyn has been a higher education reporter since 2015. As a freelancer, he contributed to The Atlantic, The Hechinger Report, Inside Higher Ed and The 74. Previously, he was a reporter at EdSource...