How Excused Withdrawals Impacted the 2023 Equitable Placement Awards
On May 31st, 2023, the Campaign for College Opportunity celebrated 56 campuses from the California Community Colleges (CCC) system for their efforts to ensure more students are taking and passing transfer-level coursework. We included specific accolades for campuses that have also closed equity gaps between Latinx students and Black students vis-à-vis their peers during the 2020-2021 academic year, the latest year for which data is available.
The 2020-21 school year was a challenging one for students, faculty, staff, and administrators as the impacts of the COVID-19 global pandemic continued to dominate our lives. The sudden onset of COVID-19 pandemic forced colleges to suddenly rethink their operations. All courses were moved online, and a host of policies were rapidly implemented or adjusted. One such policy was the expansion of the system’s “Excused Withdrawal” policy, which was amended in the early days of the pandemic, in March of 2020.
Typically, when a student withdraws from a course after the college’s add/drop deadline, the course is included on their transcript with a “W” in place of a grade. Under special circumstances, such as when the student is subject to an immigration action, a mid-semester job transfer to another region, or incarceration, students could apply for an Excused Withdrawal (“EW”) instead of the usual “W”, thereby not counting as one of the three times a student may attend and withdraw from the same course. Colleges have been able to grant EWs since 2018, but the executive order mentioned above waived the requirements typically needed to receive an EW, allowing students to drop Spring 2020 courses which has the further benefit of allowing students to be refunded enrollment fees. As recently as the 2017-2018 school year only one student across the entire system received an EW for each of transfer-level English and Math courses. In the 2020-2021 academic year, usage skyrocketed, with nearly 6,000 students receiving EWs for courses in each subject.
The Impact of Excused Withdrawal on our Performance Rankings
The Campaign recognizes campuses that are placing 100% of entering students into transfer-level coursework, and campuses where a high percentage of incoming students successfully pass transfer-level English and math courses within one year of taking their first English or math course, respectively—known as the throughput rate. In prior years, these percentages were calculated without including students who received Excused Withdrawals. Because so few students received EWs, their exclusion from the totals had a negligible impact on campuswide completion rates. That is clearly no longer the case.
Source: “The Impact of Excused Withdrawals on Throughput, with a Focus on Transfer-Level Math AB 705 Implementation Report”, The RP group, November 2022.
Furthermore, campuses varied widely in the number of EWs given to students. There were 5,966 excused withdrawals for transfer-level English courses across the 116-campus system. However, 17 campuses did not report a single EW, and 53 campuses reported fewer than 10. Conversely, the campus that reported the largest number of EW’s was Modesto Junior College which recorded 737, a number that exceeded the combined total of 85 campuses.
The story was similar for transfer level math courses as the college with the highest EW usage- Mt. San Antonio College with 720- granting more EWs than the combined total of 80 other campuses. For Math courses, 18 campuses reported 0 EWs and 55 only reported single digit totals.
Vast discrepancies between colleges regarding the rate at which they granted EWs led to a handful of colleges placing in very different spots on our rankings depending on whether EWs are left out or considered as non-completers. Additionally noteworthy is that across both subjects, Black and Latinx students were slightly more likely than the average students at their institution to have received an EW. Just 3.7% of students who enrolled in a transfer level English course in the Fall of 2020 ended up receiving EWs, compared to 3.8% for Black students (263) and 4.3% of Latinx students (3,384). The rates were slightly higher across the board for math with 4.6% of all first-time enrollees receiving an EW compared to 4.7% of Black students (261) and 5.5% of Latinx students (3,386).
Determining why EW use was so widespread at some colleges and virtually nonexistent at others has proven to be a challenge. It is likely possible that while the executive order to broaden the potential use cases for EWs was presented universally across the community college system, some colleges simply spent more time and effort broadcasting the newly available option to their students. While beyond the scope of this post and our annual awards, further research on this topic is key to understanding this development, and contextualize the data of the past few years in the broader post-AB705 context.
After much internal discussion and consulting with a variety of experts we decided to include students who receive EWs in our calculations meaning that they will be included in the count as non-completers. We are a student-centered organization and our stated goal on equitable placement is to ensure as many students as possible are placed into and supported to complete transfer-level English and math courses. While the pandemic is undeniably a complicating factor, students who utilized the EW option were not successfully supported to complete that course and as such, should be considered no differently than any other student who attempted but did not complete the course within the required one-year time frame.
Research conducted by the RP Group determined that there is sufficient evidence to conclude that many of the students who utilized the EW would not have passed the course even in the option’s absence and so, “EWs essentially replaced other non-passing grades”. As such, not including EWs would in effect be a substantial artificial boost to the throughput rates of a handful of colleges and would not truly be representative of their progress on implementation of equitable placement policy.
Looking To the Future
In 2017 Governor Jerry Brown signed AB705 (Jacqui Irwin), a bill sponsored and long championed by the Campaign for College Opportunity, requiring community colleges to maximize the likelihood of a student completing transfer-level English and math coursework within a year of their first English or math course, respectively. Since then, throughput rates for transfer-level math and English courses have risen dramatically with math completion rates doubling from 27% to 54% in that timeframe. Previously, many community colleges had over relied on remedial coursework- over 75% of students were required to take remedial math and/or English classes- despite years of evidence that students placed directly in transfer-level courses were more likely to complete the coursework in a timely manner.
English completion rates have increased substantially as well, from 52% in 2017 to 68% in 2020. While English completion rates decreased for the first time since AB705’s passage (from 68% in 2020 to 66% in 2021), that decline can be wholly attributed to the increased EW totals, as without including excused withdrawals, the completion rate increased to 69%, an all-time high. Similarly, when excluding excused withdrawals, the completion rate for transfer-level Math courses increased by an additional three percentage points to 57%- also an all-time high. As of January 2023, the CCC has reverted its EW eligibility requirements to their pre-COVID standards, and the prevalence of EW notations has been steadily decreasing since peaking in the fall of 2020.
There is undoubtedly much more work to be done to realize the promise of equitable placement policy. While we’ve seen near total compliance with AB705 on the English front (97% of students were placed directly into a transfer-level English course within one year of enrollment), we are not there yet with math. In Fall 2019, only 43% of students were placed directly into a transfer-level math course within one year of enrollment. One year later that number shot up all the way to 79%- a massive 36 percentage point improvement in just 12 months. However, by 2021 the transfer-level math enrollment rate’s meteoric growth slowed considerably, landing at 81%, indicating a remaining hesitancy by some colleges to fully embrace the program to virtually eliminate remedial math. Fortunately, the state has already acted on this front. In 2022, the state assembly passed AB1705, which once again mandated that all students be placed directly into transfer level English/math courses withing one year of enrollment and closed several loopholes that have been used to sidestep previous regulation. With AB1705 in place, we will hopefully come to view the EW as merely a blip during an extended wave of student success that is only just beginning.