Community college reform is working, but there’s much to do

November 5, 2020

Reform expert Tatiana Melguizo discusses community college legislation

By Ross Brenneman

Tatiana Melguizo

Dr. Tatiana Melguizo

While prestigious colleges and universities often draw a lot of attention, federal data show that more American students are taught in community colleges than any other single kind of institution of higher education.

Historically, many students enrolling in community colleges have needed remediation in certain subjects. But experts who study community colleges, like USC Rossier Associate Professor Tatiana Melguizo, have argued that these remediation systems often make mistakes about how much remediation students need. And those failures can have a negative impact on how many students finish their degree program.

In January 2018, California passed AB 705, a piece of legislation meant to improve the remediation system. Melguizo is the principal investigator on a project investigating the success of that law, funded by a $400,000 grant from the Spencer Foundation.

We talked with Melguizo about what progress has been made under AB 705 thus far, and what work remains.

(This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)

We’re now more than two years into AB 705. Remind us what problem it was trying to solve.  

AB705 was ground-breaking legislation that requires community colleges to maximize throughput—the probability that a student will enter and complete a transfer-level coursework in English and math within a one-year time frame.

In order to fulfill this goal, colleges need to change their assessment and placement rules and use multiple measures—meaning, information from the students’ high school transcripts—to make sure that the knowledge and skills gained in high school count and are valued as students transition to the community college.

And to maximize throughput, colleges are expected to place students directly in transfer-level English and math courses with additional academic supports depending on their level of high school academic preparation. In the past, students had to re-take as many as five courses before they had the opportunity to enroll in a college-level math or English course.

By centering the policies on the colleges as opposed to the students, the legislation—if properly implemented—has the opportunity to expand opportunity and student success. Community college faculty and leaders are taking the opportunity to change the curriculum and pedagogical practices to support students and become student-centered institutions.

“If properly implemented.” How’s that going?

We have been working closely with the Los Angeles Community College District (LACCD) as part of a researcher-practitioner partnership currently funded by the Spencer Foundation. The district shared with us data related to Fall 2019 AB705 implementation. This is data pre-COVID-19, meaning at a time that community colleges and basically the rest of the world was offering in-person instruction. We analyzed the data with our partners in the district and we are very pleased to report five key findings:

Here’s what we’ve seen:

AB705 has the directive to place more students in transfer-level courses instead of developmental courses. AB705 led to thousands of additional student enrollments in transfer-level English and math courses in Fall 2019. Overall, 29% of all first-time-in-college (FTIC) students enrolled in a transfer-level math course, and 56% enrolled in a transfer-level English course, up from just 10% and 25% percent in Fall 2017.

Enrollment in transfer-level English and math courses substantially increased for all groups, but grew the largest for Black, Filipina/o/x and Latina/o/x students.

Black students and Latina/o/x students experienced the largest shift from developmental to transfer-level math courses, but more than one quarter of FTIC Black and Latina/o/x students still did not enroll directly in a transfer-level math course.

With so many more students in transfer-level courses, the passing rates for those courses declined in both math and English, but in raw numbers, hundreds more students are completing transfer-level English and math than were prior to AB705. Throughput growth was especially large for Black, Filipina/o/x, and Latina/o/x students, suggesting AB705 is removing barriers.

What kinds of unintended consequences have you seen, if any? Or, what areas need more research? 

The key findings illustrate that AB705 is already positively expanding educational opportunity and to some extent reducing the opportunity gaps. California higher education governance structure is very decentralized, meaning faculty and colleges have a lot of autonomy to choose how to implement changes. We are observing variation in terms of student success when we look at the outcomes by individual colleges. This means that some faculty and leaders at the colleges are taking the opportunity to adapt the curriculum, their pedagogy not only to the AB705 requirements but also to the new online COVID-19 realities.

AB705 is an unfunded mandate, which means the field needs to advocate for equitable and adequate funding, so community colleges receive a larger share of the higher education budget to be able to provide the professional development and technological changes necessary to help all students but in particular African American, Latina/o and other students of color succeed.

We are seeking additional funding to be able to further our current research and explore the strategies of the colleges that are leading in terms of implementation and closing equity gaps, so other colleges learn from their practices.

What other aspects of student success in community colleges could use more intervention from policymakers? 

There is a need for inter-sector collaboration. Research conducted over the past decade as part of a research-practitioner partnership suggests that the equity costs of college-readiness mis-alignment is really high. In particular for Blacks and Latinos, English-language learners, and students who aspire to major in a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), field.

What does that mean?

That K-16 leaders need to work together to agree on a set of college-readiness standards so there is clarity and students are not penalized for the lack of communication.

In October, California Community Colleges received a $100 million donation from the Jay Pritzker Foundation for scholarships for students who are close to completing a credential or transferring to a four-year college, as well as emergency aid to help during the pandemic. Can you give us context for how much this kind of aid actually helps?

Community colleges continue to receive inadequate and unequal funding from the state and federal government. It is critical for philanthropic organizations to step in and support the students at this historic moment. The Pritzker Foundation—along with ECMC and College Futures Foundations—are providing the financial support beyond tuition that is critical for non-traditional students to have the conditions to thrive.

Recent policies such as AB705 are also creating conditions for institutions to be student centered, but many are unfunded mandates. The financial support coupled with curricular and pedagogical changes—along with a strong conviction from leaders and educator of the academic potential of the students—is a first step to move the needle toward decreasing the opportunity gap.

What can so-called “elite” or “prestige” universities learn from community colleges?

Elite universities like USC and NYU have been actively recruiting community college transfers and these students have been succeeding at unprecedented rates while bringing socioeconomic and racial and ethnic diversity to their campuses. Elite colleges should be creating bridges of opportunity and creating comprehensive college-support transition programs similar to the ones offered by the Nebraska University System to not only admit students but support them throughout college.

Elite colleges traditionally have been rewarded for selecting a small proportion of students who need very little support to succeed. But we are a point in history that elite colleges should become student-centered institutions. They should not only admit a diverse body of students but also create the conditions for them to succeed!

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