Implementing Prerequisites: A Response to SSTF Recommendation 3.4

Curriculum Committee Chair with assistance from the Curriculum Committee Members

In January 2012, the Board of Governors accepted the 22 recommendations included in the final report of the Student Success Task Force (SSTF). Many of these recommendations remain controversial and will continue to spur both discussion and opposition, and implementation of several of them will require either legislative or regulatory changes if indeed they are eventually implemented at all. In contrast, Recommendation 3.4 does not necessarily require such changes and involves an action that colleges can execute immediately, and doing so may preempt the need for further regulatory impositions stemming from this recommendation.

Recommendation 3.4 reads as follows: “Community colleges will require students to begin addressing basic skills needs in their first year and will provide resources and options for them to attain the competencies needed to succeed in college-level work as part of their education plan.” The task force members were unanimous in their support for the concept behind this particular recommendation: most faculty would agree that students would benefit in the majority of their classes if they had already reached a collegiate level of preparation before attempting other coursework. The issue for the task force in this case was not whether the recommendation would have a positive impact on students, but rather how it might most reasonably be implemented. The final SSTF report suggests the possibility of “a new Title 5 regulation making the requirement explicit for all students at all colleges.” However, the report also suggests another approach through which this recommendation could be fulfilled: implementation of reasonable prerequisites at a local level throughout the community college system.

In the past, the process for establishing prerequisites in most cases required statistical analysis. This process was both time consuming and difficult, and it essentially forced colleges to wait, sometimes for extended periods, for large numbers of students to fail in order to prove the prerequisite was necessary. Consequently, many colleges chose not to implement prerequisites even when faculty felt that a prerequisite for a course would greatly increase the chances of student success. However, on March 8, 2011, the Board of Governors adopted changes to Title 5 that allow colleges the option to establish local prerequisites in the areas of computation and communication for courses in other disciplines through content review alone rather than through statistical analysis. Local colleges are now able to determine the most appropriate method to use when creating a prerequisite. This Title 5 change made the establishment of reasonable prerequisites more feasible, though no less rigorous, for colleges throughout the state.

In February 2012, the CCC Chancellor’s Office published a document titled Guidelines for Title 5 Regulations Section 55003. These guidelines provide colleges with the details and advice necessary for setting up a process for establishing prerequisites. With this publication, colleges now have all of the tools necessary to begin discussions regarding the establishment of prerequisites through content review and to plan the processes through which their institutions might implement such changes. While the new language in Title 5 §55003 allows colleges more freedom in the methods for establishing prerequisites, the choice to implement or not to implement prerequisites remains a local decision, and colleges are completely within their rights if they choose not to apply prerequisites to their classes. However, in light of SSTF Recommendation 3.4, that local decision could now have system wide implications.

If colleges throughout the state were to begin establishing reasonable communication and computational prerequisites for non-remedial courses in other disciplines, this practice would have the effect of fulfilling SSTF Recommendation 3.4. Of course, no one would suggest that all classes should have prerequisites; in fact, both the Chancellor’s Office Guidelines and the Academic Senate Paper Implementing Content Review for Communication and Computation Prerequisites urge colleges to plan carefully the processes they will use to determine which courses require prerequisites in order to ensure that any enrollment restrictions are appropriate and are only placed on those courses that truly need them, thus avoiding the inadvertent creation of unnecessary barriers to student success. Nevertheless, many courses throughout the curriculum of any college could legitimately and beneficially have a communication or computation prerequisite added. If such appropriate prerequisites were in place, students would effectively be required to address their needs for basic skills remediation before moving too far into degree or transfer level coursework, and thus Recommendation 3.4 would to a large extent be satisfied.

One of the primary objections to SSTF Recommendation 3.4 is that while the concept behind it may be valid, colleges simply do not offer enough sections of precollegiate-level courses in math, composition, and reading to meet the demand that would result if all students were forced to address remediation needs before enrolling in other courses. This contention is, of course, completely accurate for most if not all of our colleges. 3However, Title 5 §55003(l) requires colleges to ensure that they are offering enough sections of the necessary courses as an aspect of establishing prerequisites. If we pursue the implementation of Recommendation 3.4 through reasonable and carefully planned prerequisites rather than through regulatory change, we will be able to do so in a manner that allows a gradual and calculated phase-in of enrollment restrictions, thus mitigating the difficulties created by the increased demand for basic skills classes to the greatest degree possible.

On the other hand, if colleges choose to continue to allow students unrestricted enrollment in all or most courses, we will likely see changes to Title 5 that force students to address remediation needs early in their academic careers. The opportunity to phase in changes gradually may disappear in the face of regulatory mandates that would reshape our schedules and our curriculum for us. We do not yet know the exact language that such Title 5 changes might take, but many of us would prefer to address the situation ourselves rather than have such regulations imposed upon us.

The choice is up to our local colleges. If colleges take the lead in fulfilling SSTF Recommendation 3.4 through the establishment and application of appropriate prerequisites, we may be able to control the pace of the changes and the effects on our curriculum through our own local processes. If, instead, colleges choose to resist the application of prerequisites, we risk changes to Title 5 that would take the decision out of our hands and force new requirements on our curriculum, our schedules, and our students.