The dropout and failure-to-graduate rates in California’s 72-district, 114 community colleges serving over 2.1 million students are unacceptable. A study by the Institute for Higher Education Leadership at Cal State Sacramento found that 70 percent of community college students fail to graduate or transfer to a four-year institution. These students typically drop out without any degree but with considerable debt.
One strategy used to redress this grim reality was to pour resources into remedial math and English courses, populated disproportionately by African-American and Latino students. It failed abysmally. Only 18 percent of elementary algebra students completed transfer-level math to CSU and UC systems in three years, and only 6 percent of pre-algebra students.
Something radical had to be done. Enter Assembly Bill 705. Introduced by Jacqui Irwin, D-Thousand Oaks, it was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown on Jan. 1, giving community colleges a deadline for full implementation by the fall of 2019.
The two revolutionary aspects of the bill are: a) colleges must maximize the probability that a student enter and complete transfer-level coursework in math and English within one year and b) colleges must use high school coursework, high school grades or high school GPAs to place incoming students into transfer-level courses, providing concurrent support as needed.
To appreciate the radical nature of AB 705, consider what I have witnessed with heartbreaking regularity in my years of teaching math. Joe, a high-school graduate with a 3.0 GPA, enrolls in his local college as a springboard for admission to UC Davis to major in sustainable agriculture. He expects to spend at most 3 years to accumulate enough units to transfer. Without delving into his aspirations, however, the college gives him an impersonal placement test where he falters with fractions. He gets trapped into a three-semester sequence of non-transferable basic skills classes of pre-algebra, algebra 1 and 2. He manages to pass the first two but algebra 2, with complex conjugates, quadratic equations and such, proves insurmountable. Overcome by emotional and psychological problems, Joe drops out and accepts a low-wage job below his potential.
AB 705 recognizes that it is the structural problem of under-placement and long sequence of classes that prevent students like Joe from graduating. Under AB 705, Joe is placed in transferable statistics in his very first semester, with help in math provided as just-in-time or co-requisite remediation. Excited by the relevance of the predictive power of statistics to his major, Joe aces the course. In a year, he completes transfer-level math and English requirements for a four-year institution.
Pipe dream? No. Pilot projects at San Diego’s Cuyamaca College and San Bruno’s Skyline College among others have shown that placing students in transferable math and English courses based on high school GPA quadruples the completion rate.
AB 705 has its challenges and detractors. Some claim it is too draconian. Others, that it was forced down from above without adequate faculty consultation. These are legitimate concerns, but the overriding factor for embracing AB 705 is that through proper placement and emphasizing acceleration over remediation, it can lift students from failure to success.
The Golden State has the fifth largest economy in the world, after the United States, China, Japan, and Germany. Its demand for a skilled, innovative workforce is skyrocketing. California’s community colleges must play a significant role in nurturing and educating this workforce. Faculty, counselors and administrators must work together to help students reach the high bar set by AB 705. Knowingly or unknowingly, we have been guilty of the soft bigotry of low expectations, with minority students bearing the brunt of our casually cruel mindset. We wrongly focus on what our students don’t know rather than what they know. The pilot projects have shown that students rise to the challenge of higher expectations. By demanding more, we can not only help our students succeed academically but also guide them toward a life of meaning and purpose.