How to up the odds of college completion


College attainment in California is declining, posing a threat to social and economic vitality.

How, then, can we better serve the growing numbers of students entering California’s community colleges who are not prepared for college-level work so that we can increase college completion in the state?  Should underprepared students be required to take remedial coursework right away, or at all? What courses should they be allowed to take before they have completed remedial work?  These are complex questions, and it’s critical to get the answers right.

Currently, there are few prerequisites in place for entry into college-level courses due to the complexity of the current process for establishing prerequisites. Colleges must show, using statistical data, that a student who takes a college-level course (e.g., Asian Civilization) without first passing a prerequisite course (e.g., highest pre-college reading/writing course or equivalent proficiency) is less likely to pass the college-level course.  This statistical proof must be provided for every pair of courses for which a prerequisite is desired. With few prerequisites in place, students have open access to college-level courses whether or not they can read or write at college level or perform basic mathematics.

The Academic Senate of the California Community Colleges  recently passed a resolution calling for changes in the the courses that provide those competencies (most likely remedial courses), and then  set course prerequisites accordingly. The proposal is controversial, with opposing sides believing that setting prerequisites will help/harm under-represented minority students. process for establishing prerequisites by allowing “content review.”  With content review, faculty experts in their fields determine the reading, writing, and/or math competencies that students need to succeed in a given college-level course (e.g., History, Economics), and  the courses (most likely remedial courses) that provide those competencies, and then set course prerequisites accordingly. The proposal is controversial, with opposing sides believing that setting prerequisites will help/harm under-represented minority students.

The Academic Senate proposal aligns with the best thinking nationally on how to improve remedial instruction while simultaneously taking a balanced approach to prerequisites. By encouraging colleges to be clear on the skills and competencies that students need in college-level courses and designing remedial courses accordingly, the proposal is a major step towards improving basic skills.

A review of developmental education policy reforms being undertaken by leading states in this area (e.g., North Carolina, Virginia, Connecticut, Washington) reveals the following trends:

1.     Minimizing the time students spend in remedial coursework by replacing long sequences of semester-long courses with options that include:

  • modular courses with open entry/open exit as students’ competencies dictate;
  • contextualized remedial courses whereby students learn basic skills in the context of substantive content, sometimes in paired courses where a content instructor and a basic skills instructor work together to ensure that remedial instruction is effectively targeted to students’ needs;
  • supplemental remedial instruction where students with limited deficiencies enroll in college-level courses and receive targeted assistance with needed basic skills.

2.     Balancing permissiveness and restrictiveness with respect to access to college-level courses by:

  • allowing students into college-level courses concurrent with their remedial enrollments as long as the course does not require the specific underdeveloped skills (the key being reading; states generally do not allow students who are not proficient in reading to take college-level courses);
  • requiring students to begin and complete remediation early by setting limits, for example, on the number of credits students may earn before completing remediation.

3.     Using content review to minimize the time that students spend in remedial education by:

  • examining and aligning the content of college-level and remedial courses;
  • using that content review as the basis for placing or directing students into appropriate courses.

The proposed policy would also lay the foundation for more diagnostic use of assessments so that students can be directed only to those basic skills courses or modules or contextualized courses that they need – shortening the time they spend in remediation. It lays the foundation for creating a set of clear college readiness standards that can communicate to K-12 what will be expected of students who enter the community colleges. Finally, it replaces the current problematic process with purposeful alignment of course content, in line with what the leading reform states are doing.

Nancy Shulock is director of the Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy at Sacramento State University, and a professor of Public Policy and Administration. IHELP conducts applied policy research to advance the understanding of student success in higher education and improve state public policies. She has authored numerous reports and articles on higher education policy and performance, finance policy, community colleges, accountability, policy analysis, strategic planning, and legislative decision making.


  1. Another huge issue is economic, and as I understand it it’s entirely unknown how many students don’t complete college for financial reasons.
    In another of those international comparisons that are entirely invalid because of huge confounding factors, the U.S. college completion rate compares poorly to college completion rates in other developed countries. But in some/many (number unknown to me) developed nations, college tuition is free and students’ living expenses are paid while they attend college. (Another of those horrific examples of socialism — bring it on, I say.)
    In the U.S., of course college is a crushing financial burden around which many families build their lives.

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  2. Financial reasons are serious but frequently misunderstood and overstressed. You may want to look at OECD Education at a Glance at,3343,en_2649_39263238_43586328_1_1_1_1,00.html , indicator B5 to get more sense of it. American higher education — the private one in particular — has become overly expensive, probably mostly due to broad and indiscriminate availability of subsidized student loans. But that did not significantly reduce our college enrollment rates — we dropped in international ranks because other countries moved ahead.
    Specifically, however,  discussed here are community colleges (Tertiary type B, in OECD parlance) that tend to be very inexpensive in the U.S., and in California in particular. The major problem with them seems to be a large under-prepared population coming out of K-12 rather than cost of tuition. Having unprepared students stay in the system longer than necessary burdens that subsidized system and makes students lose potential earnings. Neither is healthy in general.

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  3. I don’t know if there is (are) any data exploring the reasons students don’t finish college. But obviously, the fact that higher education is the family financial burden of a lifetime in this country and is zero financial burden in other countries is such a massive confounding factor that it’s impossible to make comparisons. Did other countries move ahead as fully subsidized higher education became more widely available to their citizens?
    While community college enrollment is low-cost, community college students still have living expenses to pay. The CSUs and UCs aren’t all that cheap anymore either, and their students as well have to pay room and board. It would be useful to control for the cost factors and THEN look at the college completion rate, but that doesn’t seem to be happening.

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