Within four years of enrolling in community college, less than half of recent South King County high school graduates completed a two-year program or transferred to a university.

For years, Washington community colleges experimented with closing that gulf by changing how they approach remedial courses, which can slow or stop students from earning a degree.

But a report based on data from more than 8,600 students in South King County calls for stronger action: making college-level courses the default for all students. The report’s authors argue that remedial courses enroll a disproportionate number of students of color, and that many students in these prerequisite math and English classes don’t need to be there under their colleges’ own policies.

The report comes as states around the country are taking tighter reins over how community colleges decide which students are allowed into college-level courses. In Washington, each of the state’s 34 community and technical colleges has full discretion over its standards.

Researchers from the Community Center for Education Results (nonprofit organization behind the Road Map Project), Highline College and the Puget Sound College and & Career Network cross referenced the high school transcripts of students, the courses they took in community college and various criteria for placement into remedial courses at seven community colleges, including Bellevue, Green River, Seattle Colleges and Highline.

According to the report, 30% of students who met the bar for college-level math at their community colleges took a precollege course anyway. For English, that was case for 13% of students.

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Researchers had no data to track why a student ended up a precollege course, or what placement methods were used most often, another problem highlighted in the report. The state doesn’t require colleges to keep that information. Each college also has different way to measure a student’s readiness for college-level math and English. Most use a combination of information, including examining which courses the students took in high school, or their performance on a standardized test administered by the community college.

Among some students of color, the researchers found placement into remedial classes was more pronounced. Seventy percent of white and Asian students avoided remedial math and English courses, versus 52% of Latino students and 56% of Black students. And while only 3% of white students with at least a 3.0 GPA in high school were enrolled in two or more precollege English courses, the figure jumps up to 14% for Black students.


Taking these courses affects students both academically and financially. Researchers estimate that these extra courses cost an average of $800 per student per year, with Black students paying closer to $900 each as a result of taking longer precollege courses.

“There are students who need more support when it comes to college courses —that’s a fundamental truth,” said Mercy Daramola, College Access Network Manager for the Puget Sound College and & Career Network, one of the authors of the report. “But our research is showing that there are a large portion of students who are being placed into that category that should not be there.”

There were also limitations to the study. Because the data is only based on a selection of schools in the state, and looked solely at students in South King County, the findings shouldn’t be applied to all incoming students across all Washington state community colleges. The students studied are also on the younger side — they took a year or less between graduating high school and enrolling in community college.

But many trends the researchers found mirrored national research: Students were less likely to take college courses, or succeed in them, after taking remedial classes. In an analysis of about 3,000 students’ academic records, the report found taking two or more remedial, or “precollege,” math courses “has a negative and statistically significant relationship to earning a 2.0 or higher in [college-level] math,” the report said. Three in five students who took one or more precollege math classes never advanced to college-level math.

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That might sound counterintuitive, but the length of time required to complete the courses can be a barrier for many students, said Elizabeth Kopko, a senior research associate at Columbia University’s Community College Research Center. It’s time away from college credit-bearing courses — time that community college students, who are often working jobs or caring for family — don’t have. 

“You can’t always put your life on hold. It feels like meaningless course-taking that’s not connected to their goals,” said Kopko.

The findings aren’t new to those who lead community colleges, said Bill Moore, director of K-12 partnerships at the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges. Many, if not all, community colleges in the state have started using high school transcripts to gauge a student’s readiness for a college-level course, rather than administering standardized tests, which are criticized for sorting students along racial and socioeconomic lines, he said. In states like California, the use of placement tests to determine placement into remedial classes is prohibited.

Highline College, highlighted in the Roadmap report, made some reforms to its remedial placement policies that saw promising results, including accepting high school transcripts for placement into English courses and creating a “brush up” course to help students prepare for a placement exam. Between 2014 and 2015, the share of Black students placing into college-level math courses shot up 26 percentage points, from 8% to 34%.

Using high school transcripts and GPAs is a step in the right direction, the researchers noted, but there are still flaws with that approach because of colleges’ inconsistent policies and inequities in the K-12 system.

Some colleges, such as Seattle Colleges, only accept high school transcripts if the students are Seattle Public Schools graduates. Others have different thresholds for which courses and GPAs are sufficient, and that can vary based on the school district the student graduates from. If a student comes from a district not listed in the college’s placement policies, they may have to take a standardized test.

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Using GPAs and high school courses can also help to codify inequities, since students of color in South King County are less likely to have access to the courses that colleges deem as sufficient, including calculus, the report said.

Moore said the recommendation to stop requiring remedial coursework is bold, and would require colleges to provide intensive support.

But, he added, “I think the data nationally would also support that … the vast majority would be fine [in a college-level course],” Moore said.

Correction: A previous version of this story mentioned that researchers from the Road Map Project authored the report. The researchers are actually from the Community Center for Education Results, the nonprofit that serves as a backbone organization for the Project. Read more about the distinction here.