Work Shift Explainer
California’s urgent work to reform remedial ed
The nation’s most important college equity push isn’t the test-optional movement—it’s the reform of remedial education.
Millions of students enroll in college each year, only to learn they won’t actually be starting with college-level work.
Instead, they are placed into remedial education based on cutoff scores on math and English placement tests. Students who end up in these courses are disproportionately students of color, first-generation college goers, and learners from low-income backgrounds. And the majority never make it out of that track.
Students often become discouraged and leave college without earning a credential. Many struggle in the job market and default on their student loans.
That was long accepted as the price for open access.
In recent years, however, research has shown that far more students are capable of being successful in college-level courses. A growing chorus of student advocates and policy makers has called for a fundamental restructuring of remediation aimed at lowering barriers to students so they have access to a college-level education.
Florida was the first state to implement statewide changes, with controversial 2013 legislation that eliminated remedial education and instead placed students in credit-bearing gateway math and English courses with additional academic supports.
Other states followed suit with similar reforms, including Tennessee, Texas, Connecticut, and, most recently, Louisiana. These reforms have resulted in a large body of evidence showing that students are far more likely to succeed if they get remediation within the context of credit-bearing classes instead of being routed into prerequisite remedial courses. This approach, dubbed corequisite education, has been gaining traction across the country as the evidence base around its effectiveness grows.
“If there is one thing that we know affects most community college students, it’s [traditional] developmental education,” says Su Jin Gatlin Jez, executive director of California Competes. “We have now learned that it is not good for students. And we know what to do about it.”
The change in California is already bearing fruit, with many of the 116 colleges moving away from traditional remedial courses. But the implementation has been uneven, and the state faces a crucial moment amid the nation’s turbulent recovery from the pandemic.
California’s move to reform remediation is a key moment for the student success movement, says Yolanda Watson Spiva, president of Complete College America, an early leader in reforming remedial education.
“It’s about students seeing themselves as college students,” she says. But Spiva says a shift this pivotal isn’t easy. “It takes a whole lot to move a state like California.”
Work Shift Explainer: Remedial reform in California
This Work Shift Explainer looks at the big picture on California’s remedial reform. That includes reporting on what’s at stake for millions of vulnerable students, the accomplishments and challenges of multi-year effort, and the continued investment that will be required to make it work in the nation’s largest public college system.
Remedial education feels like a fixture in higher education. As many as four in 10 first-time college students will take a remedial course at some point. And the numbers are much higher at community colleges. Sixty-five percent of students who are enrolled at those colleges will do remedial work. And they take an average of three such courses—essentially a semester’s worth.
Despite how common remedial education is today, it wasn’t a core part of American higher education for much of its existence. That changed in the mid-1960s, when the Civil Rights Act and the Higher Education Act dramatically expanded who could attend college.
As hundreds of new community colleges and regional public universities were built to serve these new students—many of them women and people of color—a new system of placement testing and remedial education was built alongside them. It was a response to faculty concerns that many of these new students weren’t ready for college-level work and would fail without additional preparation.
Some higher education leaders and scholars, including those who support remedial reform, see a benign or benevolent intent there. Others, including Estela Bensimon, director of the University of Southern California’s Center for Urban Education, do not.
“Remedial education is the academy’s version of redlining,” she says. “Even if it appears to be race neutral, it’s not.”
Whatever the intent, time has made the impact clear: Vastly more people could make it in college, but a single placement score on tests that don’t consistently predict readiness for college often keeps them from enrolling in critical gateway courses.
While traditional remediation never became a legitimate on-ramp to a college degree, it did become an important source of revenue for colleges—what Bensimon calls “big business.” That’s because students still have to pay tuition for remedial courses, even though they don’t get credit for completing them. As a result, reformers say, colleges lack incentives to drop coursework that sets students up for failure.
Traditional remedial education has come under increased scrutiny in the past 20 years. Federick J. Ngo, an assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and an expert on remedial reform, said a substantial body of research has shown that remedial education was not serving students in the way many had hoped—for the mission of opening up college access to all.
“The data suggested that these sequences themselves were not really helping students to move forward,” Ngo says. “Being placed in these courses was generally detrimental to students.”
Beginning in the early 2000s, researchers began to look more closely at the system of assessment and placement, said Nikki Edgecombe from the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers Colleges. Several influential studies at the time found that remediation could have a discouraging effect—while others found that it had little impact at all, despite costing students and public colleges more than $1 billion a year at that time.
Those costs, without apparent benefit, were particularly disconcerting for state policy makers. And as the body of evidence grew, so did the appetite for legislating reform.
Some colleges, too, began experimenting with new models on their own—testing every step of the process, from the assessments used to placement and how courses are delivered. The corequisite course model has proved particularly promising. This method was widely tested in the City University of New York system and is now used across the University System of Georgia and in many community colleges in California that have been out front on remedial reform.
At a philosophical level, remedial reform redefines the purpose of front-end assessment. It’s no longer about determining whether the student is “ready” for college-level work, but rather about figuring out what the institution needs to do to support the students it admits.
The research backing a move from traditional remedial courses to corequisite education has mounted over the years, and the benefits for students also appear to be long-lasting.
For example, the University System of Georgia has seen dramatic improvements due to its remedial overhaul, with 67 percent of students now completing a gateway math course, up from 20 percent under the traditional model. And 71 percent of students complete a gateway English course, compared to 45 percent before the reform. The gains were similarly strong across all racial groups.
Likewise, a new seven-year study found that CUNY students who were enrolled in college-level courses with corequisite supports earned higher wages than their peers who participated in traditional remedial courses.
“The data is now absolutely crystal clear,” says Tristan Denley, who led the redesign of remedial education in Tennessee and Georgia before becoming the deputy commissioner of academic affairs and innovation for the Louisiana Board of Regents. “There is literally no evidence at all that there is a limit to the effectiveness of this approach.”
Roughly 80 percent of students attending California’s community colleges enrolled in at least one developmental course in math or English prior to reform legislation. And those students were disproportionately people of color or from low-income families, according to a major analysis by the Public Policy Institute of California.
- Eighty-seven percent of both Latino and Black students enrolled in remedial coursework, compared to 70 percent of Asian American and 74 percent of white students.
- And 86 percent of low-income students did the same.
Michele Siqueiros, president of the Campaign for College Opportunity in California, called this the higher education civil rights issue of our time. “These percentages are real students,” she says.
Many never make it out of the remedial track. Only 44 percent of students succeeded in remedial math, and 60 percent did so in English. The problem wasn’t that students failed to complete individual courses—it’s that too many did not complete the full sequence required to move on to credit-bearing courses.
On average, successful students took two terms or more to make it through—time that didn’t count toward a degree but that did burn through student aid money and eligibility limits.
The end result was that the vast majority of California community college students who were placed into remedial education never graduated or transferred.
- Only 16 percent of students who started in remedial education earned an associate degree or certificate, and only 24 percent transferred.
A new report from the Institute for College Access and Success found that remedial coursework was associated with additional average fees ranging from $410 to $1,390 per student. When all costs associated with college are considered, students who are placed into any remedial course can face more than $20,000 in additional costs, the report found.
Remedial education may be the biggest barrier to graduation for students, particularly those from underserved backgrounds, says Alexandra W. Logue, a research professor at CUNY’s Graduate Center.
“Anything that makes it harder to earn a degree is going to disproportionately hurt those students,” she says.
Helping more students succeed also is key to closing a projected labor shortfall of 1.1 million college degree holders in California by 2030. And that estimate was before the pandemic, which brought massive economic dislocation and rapid changes across many industries that have only increased the urgency.
Before the required move away from remedial education, many community colleges in California were experimenting with new approaches. Most commonly, they were compressing two-semester sequences into a single term or offering tailored pathways for different majors.
But even with those changes, it became increasingly clear that a systemwide overhaul was needed. The approach to placement was especially problematic, with high-stakes placement tests used to make a decision that set the course of a student’s entire college career. The tests were flawed, research showed, and were far more likely to misplace capable students into remediation than to misplace students with remedial needs into gateway courses. Most students didn’t even know the stakes.
Ngo, who was previously a high school math teacher, said students are often unaware they have to take math and English placement tests prior to enrollment. And when they find out, they often don’t understand how important the tests are, which can make them less likely to focus and prepare. That, in turn, makes the assessment less reliable.
California’s reform legislation tackled that problem head-on. It requires colleges to place students based on their previous academic performance, including at least one of the following:
- High school coursework
- High school grades
- High school grade point average
All three are broader measures of preparation, and research has shown that high school performance is better than placement tests for predicting student success in credit-bearing courses. Institutions also are required to ensure that whatever process they settle on maximizes the likelihood that a student will start and complete gateway math and English within one year.
Early-adopter colleges have seen big gains in student completion of transfer-level courses.
- For example, among students who enrolled directly in a transferable, college-level math course, 60 percent successfully completed the course within a year, compared to just 14 percent who began in a traditional remedial course, according to an October 2021 report from the California Acceleration Project.
- And another study found that 78 percent of students who were enrolled in corequisite courses completed a college-level composition course within a year.
This so-called throughput rate—the percentage of students who complete a gateway course within a year—is being used to measure the impact of the reform. The early returns are promising, with the throughput rate of students who take corequisite courses being 50 percentage points higher on average than that of students who started in traditional remedial courses.
Overall, students across the system who begin in transfer-level courses are nearly three times more likely than their peers who start in remedial courses to complete transfer-level English and more than four times more likely to complete transfer-level math, according to the California Acceleration Project.
At the same time, racial gaps in completing college-level courses have narrowed.
- For example, research has found that 46 percent of Black students complete transfer-level math within a year at colleges in the system that use multiple placement measures and have introduced corequisite courses, compared to 13 percent statewide.
- That same study found that more than 78 percent of students who were enrolled in corequisite courses completed a college-level composition course within a year.
Every student group examined by researchers has higher completion rates when starting in a transfer-level course than a remedial one, including students who were determined to have remedial needs.
“It’s exciting to see this reform and how it is changing students’ lives,” Ngo says.
Nevertheless, the effort faces challenges.
Implementation has been uneven, according to the California Acceleration Project, particularly in math. Almost 50 colleges disregarded available high school grades for some students and instead placed them in remedial math courses, the group found. And 37 of these colleges placed students in remedial math who had GPAs that should have kept them out of those courses.
Changing campus culture: The sheer size of the California Community Colleges system is a complicating factor, says Marisol Cuellar Mejia, a research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California. Getting 116 colleges with widely different cultures and leadership on board is a major challenge.
A handful of colleges have simply renamed remedial education courses, and a larger number have policies and practices, even if unstated, that encourage students to self-enroll in remedial courses. “That is problematic,” Cuellar Mejia says.
And there’s a natural bias in higher education for the status quo, says Adam Harris, a staff writer at The Atlantic who focuses on equity in education. There is an assumption, he says, that the way things have always been done is the right way.
Rethinking your life’s work: That can make change particularly hard for faculty members who have spent their careers working with the nation’s most vulnerable college students.
Accepting that remedial education isn’t working “is a hard thing to swallow” for many faculty members, says Alexandra Logue at CUNY.
Observers say that some early reform efforts didn’t do enough to help faculty understand that the underlying structure was the problem, not faculty themselves. Many have worried about losing their jobs if traditional remedial courses go away, and even if their jobs are secure, these models require that faculty learn new skills and adopt a new orientation to assessment and meeting their students’ needs.
“They need support,” says Logue. “They need understanding.”
Struggling to see the forest: For other faculty members, there also is a sort of cognitive dissonance: They see students complete their remedial education courses and often lack access to data and research on large numbers of students who never make it through.
- For example, 53 percent of students pass their traditional developmental math courses on average—and in individual courses with specific faculty, it may be higher.
- But the majority never complete the full remedial sequence and take a transfer-level math course.
“It seems cruel to put them into the college-level course where they will struggle,” Logue says. But she stresses that the evidence is clear that this approach gives students the best chance of success.
If you spend all day focused on one piece of the puzzle, it’s understandably harder to see the full picture. For students, whether they pass an individual course isn’t the biggest consideration.
The average student in California’s community colleges has to take multiple remedial courses, and even if they pass them all, it typically takes them at least a year to do so. Students often face intense pressures on their time and money and can’t afford to spend them on courses that don’t count toward a credential.
“It’s not as if they are not spending the money to take the coursework,” says Harris, adding that the “time tax that is being applied to these students” can discourage many about their odds of ever getting to graduation.
Faculty can be a driving force for remedial education reform.
Student advocates have played a particularly important role in California. But Michele Siqueiros, of the Campaign for College Opportunity, says that colleges where reforms have taken hold all have one key ingredient: faculty who support the work.
Where that buy-in is lacking, it can be built, says Tristan Denley from the Louisiana Board of Regents, particularly by involving faculty in the reform.
“They really do know their institution, the students that they serve, and the community around them,” he says. “How can they design a version of the corequisite model that actually fits?”
A wide range of experts say that if faculty are effectively supported and leaders structure the work properly, all it takes is one semester of doing corequisite courses for faculty to see the gains and get excited.
Continued engagement: For colleges, Denley says, the challenge is to stay the course, share data—and, most of all, engage faculty as the professionals they are. Big changes are possible with thoughtful, consistent engagement, he says.
Craig Hayward believed remedial education was right and necessary until he was won over by data from Katie Hern, an English instructor at Skyline College who co-founded the California Acceleration Project.
“People have started to moderate,” says Hayward, a former basic skills instructor who is dean of institutional effectiveness at Bakersfield College, adding that “there are some benefits that are incontrovertible” in moving away from remedial education.
Professional development: Institutions and instructors also need the resources necessary to make this transition, such as up-front professional development. Never underestimate the power of support services for faculty and staff as they try to navigate new practices and course structures, Edgecombe says.
Resources: Broader investments also are critical, experts say. Remedial education can’t be successfully redesigned without ensuring that the appropriate academic supports are in place. That may mean additional investments in advising, tutoring, and peer mentoring. And those things need to be built into courses, not made optional.
Jessica Brathwaite, measurement, learning, and evaluation consultant at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, says that extra care and attention needs to be given to adult learners, English language learners, and immigrant students. Immigrant and adult students may not have access to materials needed for enrollment like recent transcripts, which could push them into single placement assessments.
Early results provide a basis for that further investment. And the students who have benefited most are Black and Latino.
The transformation under AB 705 has been dramatic, says Cuellar Mejia. But there is still much work to be done—long-standing equity gaps aren’t just going to disappear in a few years’ time.
But with continued effort, they can. Corequisite education “may not seem like a sexy policy issue,” says Siqueiros, but it might be higher education’s most important reform.
To keep making progress, change will need to be driven at the campus level, says Marty Alvarado, the California community college system’s executive vice chancellor for educational services. And that effort must be part of the broader quest for continuous improvement.
The message to campuses, Alvarado says, is that “this is a learning journey and we need you to be engaged in the process.”
The clock is ticking, however, as hundreds of thousands of students in California—and millions more around the nation—continue to be frozen out of college-level courses, says Eloy Ortiz Oakley, chancellor of the California Community Colleges.
“This is the inflection point,” he says. “We’re not going back.”