Adult community college students in degree-progressing English and math courses are nearing parity with their traditional-age student counterparts when it comes to course completion, according to a new report from California Competes.
The brief, "Redrawing the Starting Line: Advancing Equity in Adult Learners’ Developmental Education Outcomes", compared transfer-level English and math course completion rates between adult community college students – those age 25 or older – and their younger, traditional-age student peers.
Transfer-level courses are courses that count towards a degree, in contrast with developmental education courses – remedial education classes to help students develop coursework skills – which do not, said brief lead author Dr. David Radwin, senior researcher at California Competes.
According to the brief, California’s community colleges historically tested incoming students and assigned or referred low-scoring students to developmental education courses. However, policy changes in recent years have sought to increase enrollment in transfer-level English and math courses.
“Students could spend years in sequences of developmental education courses, using limited financial aid awards and personal resources without earning degree- and transfer-applicable credits and delaying enrollment in transfer-level courses— if they did not drop out first,” the brief noted.
A number of state bills later, institutions are required to inform students about their right to transfer-level courses and to enroll most students in such courses. Their funding even partially hinges on student completion of transfer-level English and math classes in their first year, according to the brief.
From the 2012-13 to 2021-22 school years, among California community college students, adult student completion rates for transfer-level English courses – those who complete their first course in the subject within one year of enrolling in and attempting it – increased from 42% to 67%.
Meanwhile, the rates for traditional-age students grew from 48% to 66%, meaning the gap between the two age groups has narrowed.
Rates in transfer-level math courses for both adults and traditional-age students also saw improvement. The disparity between the two groups shrank here as well, though not to the extent seen in English courses. Adult learner completion rates rose from 19% to 50%, and traditional-age student rates went from 28% to 55%.
However, looking at completion rate differences in these transfer-level courses for students in their first year of community college paints a different picture.
Researchers at California Competes found that, among first-year community college students for the 2021-22 school year, 42% of traditional-age students completed transfer-level English courses, while only 12% of adult students did the same. Although both groups did see improvement compared to rates from the 2011-12 school year – 18% and 4%, respectively – the gap between the two groups has widened substantially.
Rates for first-year student transfer-level math course completion similarly saw increases for both groups and a larger gap.
Part of the issue is that adult students are not enrolling in these classes as much in their first year, Radwin said.
"Adult students are not enrolling in transfer-level English and math classes in their first year at the same rate as younger students. The first-year gap is widening,” Radwin said. “What we found was that, if the adults enroll, they are about as likely to pass transfer-level English or math now, compared with traditional-age students. But they have to enroll first, and they're not doing that at the same rate."
But according to the brief, it is unclear whether this gap is actually an issue that needs addressing. The researchers called for more research to be done regarding outcomes of delayed transfer-level course enrollment for adults.
“Empowering the 6.8 million Californians aged 25-54 without a degree to navigate and succeed in and through college is crucial for closing California’s credential and workforce gaps,” California Competes CEO Dr. Su Jin Jez said in an email to Diverse. “As the state invests in transforming the transfer pathway, our commitment is to ensure adult learners are not only part of the narrative but that these reforms effectively reach and benefit them.”
To note, the data used by California Competes only looked at students’ first two attempts at each transfer-level course, so those who complete courses during their third try in a year – in perhaps a summer term or a third quarter term – would not have been accounted for, the brief stated.