Prerequisites: What Next?

Chair, Prerequisite Task Force

On March 7, 2011, the Board of Governors approved changes proposed by the Academic Senate to change Title 5 §55003 regarding prerequisites. The Senate adopted a paper explaining the advantages of Content Review at the Fall 2010 Plenary Session and a second paper providing practical guidance on the establishment of prerequisites at the Spring 2011 Plenary Session. Changes to the means of establishing prerequisites come as California community colleges face the most abrupt and steep budget cuts in their history. At a time when more students seek community college education and the most diverse student population in our history seeks education and training, the state will hand out a sign reading, “no room at the inn.” It is crucial in this fiscal climate that colleges use resources to promote the success of all students and use prerequisites to help students through their community college education in a timely way, not to block access to the education our students need.

Faculty leaders seeking to reconsider the means used on their campuses to establish prerequisites should begin by consulting the actual language of Title 5 §55003. While the Senate provides support and guidance in its papers and Rostrum articles, nothing should substitute for familiarity with the regulation itself. More has remained unchanged in §55003 than has changed, and colleges need to meet all the requirements of the regulation.

The first step begins with a review of current local board policy and procedure. Many colleges chose to adopt the parameters suggested in Model District Policy (Board of Governors, 1993), which were often more restrictive than regulation required. If, under their authority granted by Title 5 §53200(c)(1), faculty seek to develop a prerequisite process that would be inconsistent with local board policy, then the local senate will want to begin the process for review and revision of the board policy, since doing so is seldom a quick process.

New language in Title 5 §53200 calls for colleges to develop a plan for the deployment of new prerequisites. Regulation indicates that the plan must address four criteria: (1) the method to be used to identify courses that might need a prerequisite; (2) a continuing requirement to balance the curricula to meet student need as equitably as possible; (3) provision for training the curriculum committee; and (4) research into the effect of prerequisites.

Colleges have considerable leeway regarding the method used to identify courses, but data about current retention and success rates should certainly be part of the local plan. Even colleges with very limited research capacity can get significant data from Data Mart, which can be disaggregated by college and program (via TOP codes) and by age, ethnicity, and gender <>. In a number of areas disaggregated data reveals a success rate of under 50% for some campus groups, and colleges might conclude that such programs would be appropriate starting points for considering new prerequisites. Ideally, local data will help faculty identify specific courses with the most pressing need for scrutiny.

Once a college has established the method it will use, it must also take steps to assure that students displaced by new prerequisites will have other appropriate choices in the curriculum. Already California community colleges cannot meet the demand for classes, and thus in practical terms a good faith effort to balance offerings in basic skills and transferable sections is probably the best that can be done. Even apart from the challenges of implementing prerequisites, college enrollment management committees will be severely taxed for the foreseeable future. Along with the need for a college plan and robust enrollment management processes, colleges must ensure that curriculum committees are trained to implement content review responsibly and must plan for the research into the impact of new prerequisites required by Title 5 §55003. At this point, the Chancellor’s Office intends to develop a curriculum inventory code for courses with new prerequisites in order to support the efforts of colleges to monitor the effect of new prerequisites.

Close attention to disproportionate impact has been and continues to be a requirement of colleges using prerequisites. As many observers have pointed out (see for example, Nancy Shulock, Divided We Fail, IHELP, 2010), the students who enter our colleges do not arrive equally prepared, and an effective research program will not only examine the level of preparation of students, but the effect of prerequisites on retention, success, and various completion rates (for certificates, degrees, and becoming transfer ready).

Governing boards continue to need to establish policy or process to ensure that (1) the local process for establishing prerequisites is clear, that (2) qualified faculty teach to the adopted course outline, that (3) prerequisites remain necessary (and revalidation, perhaps during program review, continues to be an every-six year requirement—or two years for career technical education courses), and that (4) students have the ability to challenge prerequisites as appropriate.

Perhaps no single tool in practice has as much potential to improve student success as prerequisites, but like all tools, prerequisites must be used thoughtfully. The steps required by regulation should not be viewed as one more arbitrary set of criteria to meet, but as an attempt to guide colleges and faculty through a self-conscious process that will provide pathways through a college’s curriculum that will lead to increased student success. In the straightened fiscal circumstances in which we find ourselves, both colleges and, more importantly, students themselves need paths that will help them find their way through our colleges as effectively as possible.