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Record numbers of students are arriving on community college campuses this fall, but a majority of them—nearly 60 percent—aren’t academically prepared to handle the classwork.
Three out of every five community college students need at least one remedial course, and fewer than 25 percent of those students successfully earn a degree within eight years, according to the National Education Longitudinal Study.
“We really have to figure out how to get developmental education right, or any dream that we have of increasing the number of college graduates in this country or eliminating disparities across racial and ethnic groups—that dream is going to tank,” said Kay McClenney, the director of the Community College Survey of Student Engagement and an adjunct faculty member in the Community College Leadership Program at the University of Texas at Austin.
Pushed by federal expectations, tightening budgets, expanding enrollments, and what the foundation-supported Strong American Schools campaign estimated to be a $2 billion-and-rising annual cost for remedial education, community colleges have started experimenting with a range of strategies to address those numbers.
At one end of the spectrum, the Chicago City Colleges are considering scaling back what officials see as an inefficient system for remedial education, which is widely referred to in the U.S. as “developmental education” in an effort to shed the negative connotation of “remedial.” Mayor Richard M. Daley has suggested ending open enrollment at the colleges and relying on less-expensive alternative high school programs to prepare struggling students for higher education. Alvin Bisarya, vice chancellor of strategy and institutional intelligence at Chicago City Colleges, said the colleges were looking for solutions. “We recognize the need to do this better than we are today here and nationwide,” he said.
Ohio is discussing a minimum floor for developmental education at community colleges and is referring a growing number of older students into free adult literacy programs off campus.
But Ms. McClenney says Chicago is swimming against the current, with more community colleges taking the approach to make developmental education work. “To get good at development education, you do need to place a high priority on it and make the investments that are requisite to having effective programs in place,” she said.
Those investments can be found on campuses such as Zane State College in Ohio and Valencia College in Florida. An influx of $110 million from the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to improve developmental education at those colleges and others has begun to spur creative approaches to preparing students and keeping them on campus, including early assessments and dual-enrollment programs in high schools and individualized instruction at the college level.
Several nonprofits and commissions are pushing for broader policies to get students college-ready before they leave high school. The Common Core State Standards Initiative, for one, was designed in part to address the mismatch between the skills that high schools require for graduation and what colleges expect students to know.
With the data of failure in hand, some colleges are reaching out to their region’s high schools and revamping how they deliver developmental education.
High school students in Kentucky can earn college credits at Bowling Green Technical College through its dual-enrollment program. “Instead of waiting to see who walks through the door, we try to change the skill level before they get to our door,” explained Phil Neal, the college provost.
Often, students don’t realize that they aren’t academically ready for college until they take their first placement tests on campus or a counselor tells them the score on their ACT college-entrance exam is too low. The next step is frequently a traditional lecture course to get students up to speed. Without proper assessment to diagnose the students’ weaknesses, many continue to struggle.
To avoid that pitfall, K-12 educators should be encouraged to examine data on how students are performing in college to adjust their instruction strategies accordingly, said Michael Collins, the program director at Jobs for the Future, a Boston-based non-profit consulting group that promotes new workforce and education strategies and administers the policy component of Achieving the Dream, a national initiative to help community college students succeed. Early assessments could allow remediation to be done while students are still in high school.
A Florida law promotes such assessments by allowing high schools to use the common state college-placement test to determine where individual students need to focus to gain college-ready proficiency. North Carolina is also considering requiring most 11th graders to take the ACT and 8th and 10th graders to take the pretests leading to the ACT. Those scores could give schools both a measure of how well they are educating students and help identifying students who are not on track to be ready for college. Struggling students would be encouraged to attend an academic summer program after their junior year to prepare them for the community college-placement exams.
Once students arrive on campus, their developmental education programs can be part of the problem.
Too often, developmental courses involve worksheets and drills that are “deadly dull,” said Tom Brock, the director of Young Adults and Postsecondary Education for the MDRC, a policy-research organization in Oakland, Calif. Remedial courses don’t earn credit toward a degree, and the low expectations, inadequate tracking, and lack of support can leave students feeling demoralized. If the course content doesn’t bear relation to why they came to college, students can lose interest.
Some colleges are addressing the dullness factor by developing fast-track programs in which students who need the least help can move along more quickly. Computer software can differentiate the instruction to each student’s needs, accelerating his or her learning.
At Zane State, President Paul Brown recognizes the importance of supporting students in that first year. Sustaining the college’s 15 percent growth rate is contingent on retaining students and working with the 75 percent who enter in need of developmental education, he said. If students can make it through the first year—often with additional supports—Zane State has found that 87 percent will graduate.
To keep freshmen engaged, the college implemented an early-intervention system that identifies students who are repeating courses and provides support before they drop out. The college is also using technology and individualized instruction to tailor developmental education courses to students’ needs, Mr. Brown said.
Valencia Community College developed a Learning in Communities program for its developmental education students in which courses are paired, keeping a cohort of students together, and trained student learning leaders help organize study groups outside the classroom. Next fall, the college is planning to group 125 freshmen into a learning community working closely with four faculty members. They will move through developmental education together in the first term and co-enroll in college-credit courses in the second term, explained Nicholas Bekas, the project director of the Developmental Education Initiative on the campus.
The graduation rate at Valencia rose from 35 percent to 43 percent between 2006 and 2010 for first-time, degree-seeking students. Among those with a developmental education mandate, the numbers are up from 16 percent to 21 percent in the same time frame.
The Gates Foundation is investing in effective models because too many students get lost in developmental education, and getting a college degree is what can transform lives, said Mark Milliron, the foundation’s deputy director for postsecondary improvement.
“What [colleges] are doing now is painfully unsuccessful,” Mr. Milliron said. “The whole idea is to get in there early.” Several promising approaches are being developed, including working with high schools, providing deeper diagnosis to find academic areas of weakness, and designing modular, technology-assisted instruction to get students through developmental education faster, he said.
During his first weeks in office, President Obama set a goal for the United States to regain its place as the world leader in educational attainment by 2020. As of 2008, the most recent estimate, only 41.6 percent of 25- to 34-year-old Americans had earned at least an associate degree, leaving the United States 12th in the world in postsecondary attainment for that age range.
With higher education costs rising, community colleges will be vital to realizing the president’s goal, but the pressure to raise graduation rates could also create problems, warned George Boggs, the president and chief executive officer of the American Association of Community Colleges, based in Washington, D.C.
“One way [to improve graduation rates] is to develop admissions standards, and if you don’t let students in who are the weakest, then your graduation rates will go up,” Mr. Boggs said. “Another way is to decrease quality. If you lower your standards, you’ll get more students to the finish line. Neither one of those are very good solutions. We need to find more effective ways to increase our completion rates while maintaining open access and high quality.”
Campuses don’t want to do away with remedial education, but with tight budgets, some only want to offer courses to students who are “within striking distance,” said Mr. Collins of Jobs for the Future. “This is tricky territory,” he said. “Colleges are wondering: Is this an effective use of resources to allow someone with a 3rd grade reading level into a developmental education college course? Can they become college ready within a reasonable length of time?”
It’s legitimate to debate the level at which students have the ability to benefit from college, but the options should still be there, said Brice Harris, the chancellor of Los Rios Community College, with four campuses in central California where about 70 percent of students need developmental education. “When students wake up and are ready to go to college, we have to be here with the doors open wide,” he said. “They may be unprepared to do the work, yet we have to help them get prepared.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 15, 2010 edition of Education Week