Opinion

Community colleges’ remedial classes spur racial inequity

College students in class in the era of the pandemic. (Photo: Syda Productions, via Shutterstock)

As a political science major, I’ve studied our country’s history and listened to my professors talk about political movements. I’ve learned that change rarely happens unless people speak up when they see inequities and injustice.

That’s why I’m speaking up about a systemic injustice at our state’s community colleges. These institutions disproportionately enroll Black and Latinx students in remedial courses and this is a key driver of inequities in who graduates and transfers to four-year universities. It’s racist and it’s wrong.

AB 705 changed that. It required colleges to use high school grades for placement instead of a standardized test.

To understand this issue, it’s helpful to revisit 2017, when the California Legislature unanimously passed AB 705, a law that rightly changed how community colleges approach remedial courses. Before AB 705, students would take a standardized test and, based on the result, could be required to take up to two years of remedial classes.

Getting stuck in remedial classes predicts academic failure. Students must pay for the classes but don’t earn any credits towards a bachelor’s degree. And over a decade of research shows that starting in a remedial class makes them less likely to earn a degree.

AB 705 changed that. It required colleges to use high school grades for placement instead of a standardized test. It restricted colleges from requiring students to enroll in remedial courses. And it mandated that colleges place students into courses where they will be most likely to complete transferable English and math requirements.

These changes had a demonstrable impact on student success. Statewide, student completion of transferable English courses skyrocketed, increasing from 27 percent to 61 percent. Completion of transferable math rose from 14 percent to 40 percent. That means over 57,000 more students completed university-level English requirements statewide and over 31,000 students did in math.

I saw AB 705’s impact firsthand at Folsom Lake College. My friend was required to take three remedial math classes before he could move on to transferable math – the last course he needed to graduate. Demoralized by repeating K-12 math, he feared he would have to drop out. Then AB 705 became law – allowing him to complete his math requirement and turn his fear into freedom.

My friend’s story had a hopeful outcome. But over the years millions of students have not enjoyed these same opportunities – and they are disproportionately students of color.

We have gone from lawsuit, to long standing regulations, to a new law, and still colleges ignore proven policy at the expense of their students of color.

AB 705 was supposed to be a wake up call to California’s community colleges. But many colleges aren’t implementing the required changes.

There are 116 community colleges in California. Only three have fully implemented AB 705. Most continue to operate from a belief that a lot of students don’t belong in transfer-level courses in ignorance of proven research.

Here’s where we get to the crux of the issue: Black and Latinx students disproportionately attend colleges where course schedules are still packed with remedial math. Colleges that serve over 2,000 Black students are more than twice as likely to be behind the curve in implementing the law. This is driving ongoing completion inequities for Black and Latinx students.

This is not the first time that California has grappled with this issue. An early predecessor to AB 705 was a lawsuit by the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund. This litigation focused on assessment tests that disproportionately placed Latinx students into remedial courses. The lawsuit was settled in 1991, and the community college system approved regulations to address inequities in placement. But the changes were just a bandaid, and discriminatory practices continued with no accountability from the system.

We have gone from lawsuit, to long standing regulations, to a new law, and still colleges ignore proven policy at the expense of their students of color. It’s time for decisive leadership. I urge the Community College Board of Governors to direct the Chancellor to take enforcement actions against holdout colleges that are not giving students the best chance of earning a degree. That, hopefully, will be the wake up call we’ve been waiting for.

Editor’s Note: Andrew Nickens is the vice president of legislative affairs for the Student Senate for California Community Colleges. He is a student at Folsom Lake College and UC Davis.


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