In Move Away From Remedial Classes, California Community Colleges Roll Out More Transfer-Level Alternatives

4 min
Helen Yasko, a student at San Francisco City College, is part of Students Making a Change, a group that helps students learn about options for enrolling in transfer-level classes. (Raquel Maria Dillon/KQED)

After finishing high school, Marjorie Blen enrolled in community college with the hopes of transferring to a four-year school to earn her education degree and become an elementary school teacher.

The first in her family to attend college, Blen said her plans were derailed when she was placed in a remedial algebra class at Contra Contra Community College, an experience she found discouraging and belittling, and one that led her to eventually drop out of school altogether. After working for several years at an accounting firm and in child care facilities, Blen enrolled in a different community college, only to go through the same disillusioning process.

"I only needed this class to get to the transfer level," said Blen, now 28, and a mother of two. "I didn't need it for anything else in my life."

In the process of repeatedly enrolling and dropping out school, Blen said, she ended up wasting thousands of dollars and a few years.

"I lost three years of my life," she said. "That would be what? Six semesters. Moneywise, I probably lost close to $10,000, at least, with books, transportation, money and everything it takes to go to college."

Nearly a decade later, Blen is giving college yet another try, this time split between San Francisco City College and Skyline College in San Bruno, where she's majoring in sociology and has since discovered that she can fulfill her math requirement with a statistics course.

New research shows that Blen’s experience is not unique, said Katie Hern, an English instructor at Chabot College in Hayward who studies graduation rates at the community-college level. Students, she said, grow easily discouraged because remedial courses don’t count toward University of California transfer credit or graduation requirements.

She added that black and Latino students are disproportionately placed in remedial classes.

"There were vast inequities in our traditional approaches to placing students in English and math and requiring remediation," Hern said. "Even though these remedial courses were intended to help students, they actually make them less likely to complete college."

Under a new state law enacted in 2018, community colleges can no longer require most students to take remedial classes; schools must instead offer college-level math and English course alternatives.

As part of the rollout, many schools are now starting to provide for-credit options to help students catch up academically while also meeting graduation requirements.

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The move away from remedial classes, though, has raised concerns among some that college-level courses could end up being taught at a more basic level to accommodate underprepared students, and that some students won't receive the basic academic support they need.

"If it wasn't for those remedial classes, I wouldn't be able to form a good paper," said Montel Floyd, 23, who recently graduated from Merritt College in Oakland.  "I didn’t learn how to write a research paper until I got here. And that was in English 1A."

Some students, he said, simply don’t arrive at college ready for college-level work, and they need all the basic help they can get.

"Students are dropping out of the remedial class because they are hard," Floyd said. "They don't know how to do the math. So why put them into a college-level math or English class and think they’re going to stay in that class? No, they’re going to drop out of that class, too."

At Skyline College, Lucia Lachmayr, an English professor, is part of a team piloting what's called a "co-requisite" class designed to support at-risk students in college-level courses.

Lachmayr teaches an intro English class that counts toward graduation or transfer requirements, but also offers struggling students more class time, a dedicated student teaching assistant and close coordination with the school's writing lab.

She said these classes have helped faculty stop acting like gatekeepers, and start serving students better.

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"The challenge is that we have some students that are really incredibly high-performing students and we have some students that struggle either with language or different learning styles," she said. "Let's not put all these barriers in the way of students. We're learning to be more student-ready versus expecting them to be ready for college."

At San Francisco City College, Marjorie Blen is now working with a group called Students Making a Change to help her peers enroll in new transfer-level classes.

"The sentiment that I get from students that already went through the process is like 'We want our money back, we want the time back,' " she said.

This story is part of our series The College Try, about what it takes for students who don't come from means to get a higher ed degree in California today.

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