West Virginia: Avoid remedial ‘quicksand’

Remedial classes are the “quicksand of higher education,” James Skidmore, chancellor of West Virginia’s Community and Technical Colleges, told the state board of education.

Sixty-four percent of first-time students in the state are placed in remedial English, math or both. Only 13 percent go on to earn a degree, he said. “Students get in developmental and they never get out.”

Instead of taking remediation courses which do not count for college credit, West Virginia community colleges will begin offering “co-requisites.” These are college-level English and math classes with added support for students that need it.

Colleges will choose whether to offer a five-week “boot camp” to prepare students for the college level, tutoring sessions following each class and/or computer labs.

West Virginia joins Connecticut and Indiana as leaders in redesigning gateway college courses, writes Bruce Vandal of Complete College America. “In total, 22 states have made a commitment to dramatically increase the percent of students who complete gateway college courses in one academic year.”

Remedial reforms face resistance

Community colleges are reforming — or abolishing — remedial education, but some think remedial reforms have gone too far, reports Katherine Mangan for The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Those who are the least prepared for college stand the most to lose from policies that push students quickly into college-level classes, according to some of the educators gathered here for the annual meeting of the American Association of Community Colleges. And those students tend, disproportionately, to be minority and poor.

Appalachian State Professor Hunter R. Boylan, director of the National Center for Developmental Education, fears “collateral damage” to minority and low-income students if states enact untried models for streamlining remedial education. “If you don’t pilot innovations before mandating them statewide, the unintended consequences will come up and bite you,” he said in an AACC session on developmental ed.

Florida has made remediation optional for most high-school graduates, notes Mangan. Connecticut now limits remediation to one semester, unless it’s embedded in a college-level course. “In statehouses across the country, groups like Complete College America are urging lawmakers to replace stand-alone remedial courses with models that are offered either alongside or as part of college-credit classes.”

“For many of these students, a remedial course is their first college experience, as well as their last,” said Stan Jones, president of Complete College America.

A Texas law, which takes effect next year, will place some remedial students in college-level courses, but “bump many of the least-prepared students from remedial education to adult basic education,” writes Mangan. 

 Karen Laljiani, associate vice president of Cedar Valley College (Dallas), said her college would be able to offer only two levels of remedial mathematics instead of four. Those at the upper end of the cutoff will be accelerated into credit courses, which has some faculty members worried about an influx of unprepared students.

The big question, though, is what will happen to students who used to place into the lowest levels of remedial math, some of whom might test at third-grade levels. Some might qualify for short-term, noncredit certificate programs that provide training for blue-collar jobs. And in some cases, remediation could be built right into the course.

The college may have to refer others to community groups that handle literacy and job training—a prospect that many community-college educators see as abandoning their open-door mission.

Jones said there are “no good answers” to what happens to the least-prepared students “when they insist on wanting an academic program.” 

Miller hits remediation, low completion rates

“Remediation just isn’t hard to do. It’s almost a killer for college completion,” said Rep. George Miller in a House Committee on Education and the Workforce hearing.

Complete College America President Stan Jones discussed reforms such as “co-requisite” remediation, which lets students take college-level courses while working to improve their basic skills.

Miller has introduced a bill to help community college students transfer credits to a four-year institution, the Transferring Credits for College Completion Act of 2014 (H.R. 4348).  Students “start at community colleges to avoid burdensome debt, only to find that their credits will not transfer to their chosen four-year college and they need to repeat courses,” he said. “They are forced to take classes in subject areas they have already mastered and in which they have real-world experience. We need to eliminate these barriers to completion and empower students to complete their degrees and enter the workforce.”

Students like STEM, but don’t succeed

Nearly half of  students say they’re interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields — including health care — when they start college, but few will earn a STEM degree, according to a Complete College America report.

Forty-eight percent of recent ACT takers express interest in a STEM major, reports ACT. Forty-one percent of new four-year students and 45 percent of two-year students choose a STEM major, including health sciences, according to National Center for Education Statistics data. Four-year students favor health science, biological science and engineering, while two-year students are interested in health sciences and computer science.

Most don’t make it.

Among 4-year students, 57% of students who choose health sciences and 59% who choose computer science never complete a credential in that field.  The problem is more profound at 2-year colleges where 58% of health science and 72% of computer science students leave the program without a credential.

Those who stick with STEM complete college-level math in their first year, the report finds. Quitters don’t. They also complete few science courses.

Complete College America proposes scheduling college-level math and a majority of STEM courses in the first year to keep students on track. That will help only if students are prepared to pass college math, which many are not.

Community colleges are filled with young women who “think they’re going to be nurses” but won’t be, a researcher once told me. They don’t have the math or science foundation.

First-generation college students often focus on nursing because they’re not aware of their alternatives, writes Matt Reed, a community college dean. A colleague told him her job is to “talk students out of nursing.”

Completion agenda takes off in 2014

Complete College America thinks 2014 will be a “tipping point” for the completion agenda. Twenty-six states are implementing performance funding; 22 states (and the District of Columbia) are trying to accelerate remedial education. In addition, 15 states are deploying “15 to Finish” campaigns and 11 are developing plans for either structured schedules or Guided Pathways to Success.

 The Game Changers report identifies “the five best college completion strategies.”

At the White House summit on expanding college opportunity, 23 Alliance of States members committed to ensuring more remedial education students succeed in gateway math and English courses, writes Bruce Vandal. These “are STATE commitments that have the potential to impact hundreds of thousands of students enrolled at all of the participating states’ public institutions.”

In 2009, President Obama pledged the U.S. would lead the world in college graduates. Much has been learned since then, writes Vandal.

We did not understand that only a fraction of the 50% of all college students who are placed into remedial education each year make it to a college level gateway course, much less pass that course and proceed to a postsecondary credential. Second, in 2009, states and institutions had little idea how to increase success rates in gateway college courses . . .

In 2014, research has shown “corequisite” remediation — placing most students in gateway courses with academic support — can increase success rates dramatically, writes Vandal.

Why structure helps

Students discussed how taking a structured set of courses helped them move to a degree at Complete College America’s 2013 Annual Convening. The Game Changers highlights success strategies, including providing a structured program of study.

29% are on completion track

How Full-Time are “Full-Time” Students? asks a Complete College America a policy brief. Not very. Students who take 12 units a term are considered full-time — they’re eligible for full federal aid — but 15 credits are needed to stay on track for graduation.

Four percent of students seeking two-year degrees graduate in two years the report points out. For students seeking four-year degrees, the on-time graduation rate is 19 percent.

Only 29 percent of community college students and 50 percent of four-year students are taking 15 or more credits per semester. That means many students — even those who think they’re full-timers — will need an extra year or two to complete a degree, even if they choose all the right classes and pass every one.

The University of Hawaii’s 15 to Finish campaign, which raises awareness about the advantages of truly full-time enrollment, has raised the number of truly full-time students. Retention rates are up 22 percent.

Complete College America also is advocating for “banded” tuition. That would ensure that taking 15 credits per semester costs no more than 12.

In addition, states should cap credits needed for degrees at 60 for an associate degree and 120 for a bachelor’s, the group suggests.

More states link funding to outcomes

Sixteen states now link higher education funding to student outcomes, such as graduation rates. That will rise to 25 states soon, reports Complete College America and the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS).

outcomesSource: Complete College America and NCHEMS

“It’s sweeping across the country,” said Stan Jones, president of Complete College America, reports Inside Higher Ed.

Less than 1 percent of state support in Illinois comes with performance strings, while virtually all of Tennessee’s support does. But the report said even those on the low end are headed toward 25 percent performance-based.

Tennessee scored the highest in the report. The state uses 15 of 16 recommended strategies to improve outcomes while rewarding colleges for serving low-income and adult students.

Most states consider student characteristics when designing performance measures, the report said.

“One of the major concerns voiced about outcomes-based funding, especially when the goal is to produce more graduates,” the report said, “is that institutions will seek to enroll only those students most likely to succeed and ignore students who are at risk academically, economically or otherwise.”

Faculty groups and the Association of American Colleges & Universities “have expressed concerns about the completion agenda and its focus on performance funding,” reports Inside Higher Ed.

Gary Rhoades said the NCHEMS report confirms worries that the completion agenda is incomplete and even counterproductive. Rhoades, a professor of higher education at the University of Arizona, also directs a virtual think tank, the Center for the Future of Higher Education.

He said the report places “thoughput” – the production of graduates and degrees – over academic quality.

“The concern about quality is real and should be addressed head-on,” the report concedes. Missouri and Tennessee have included measures of student learning in funding formulas. Nevada and other states are working on ways to track learning.

Online MAP tracks students’ progress

An online tool helps students track their progress to a degree and view educational options at Mt. San Antonio College, reports the Campaign for College Opportunity. The  Mountie Academic Plan (MAP), which launched in February, helps compensate for limited counseling staff at the large southern California community college.

Students and counselors create an education plan. MAP tracks students’ progress toward their goal. Students also can look at “what-if” scenarios: What if I tried a different certificate or degree program?  They can view their progress toward a variety of transfer options.

MAP offers many advantages, according to the Campaign.

The online tracking system increases counselor effectiveness during the 30-minute sessions. Counselors spend time conducting more in-depth counseling and guidance instead of determining course history and requirements . . .

. . . Prior to the launch of MAP, educational plans were completed by hand and a photocopy was kept in the student file with the original given to the student. Paper copies were often lost or destroyed and there was no easy way to update this critical document. The new online tool allows students or counselors access to the document 24/7. Furthermore, counselors can easily view educational plans that were developed with previous counselors.

The community college is using MAP data to plan future course offerings. Preventing bottlenecks should enable students to move quickly to a certificate or degree.

Students with education plans will qualify for priority enrollment, under new California regulations. That should help them register for essential courses, saving time and money.

Indiana adopts guided pathways model

“Proactive” college advisors should guide students to a program of study or “pathway” to boost success rates, says Indiana Commissioner for Higher Education Teresa Lubbers. Currently, less than a third of the state’s college students graduate on time.

“Indiana students often experience college as a maze rather than as path to success, and many finish with debt and no degree,” said Lubbers. “With clear degree maps, proactive advising and related strategies, we can empower students to make better decisions, save time and money, and increase their likelihood of earning a degree.”

With “clearer direction, simplified choices and more structured support” students will move more quickly — and cheaply — to graduation, Lubbers argues.

A new state study, Guided Pathways to Success, recommends:

• Supplementing college advising with structured degree maps that simplify the course-selection process and provide students with a clear path to graduate on time

• Encouraging students to complete 15 credits each semester; or 30 credits per academic year

• Instituting proactive advising practices that intervene when students fail to complete key milestone courses, take courses on their degree map, or make satisfactory academic progress

• Expanding block scheduling options that offer greater consistency and predictability, making it easier for working students to balance their schooling with work and family obligations

Complete College America advocates guided pathways to speed students to a degree. Students make the “big choice” of a major or program. After that, “all the other choices of necessary credits and course sequences are laid out for them.”

The average bachelor’s degree graduate earned more than 136 credits;  120 is usually enough. Associate degrees require 60 credits, but the average graduate has earned nearly 80. “Worse, certificate earners graduated with more than double the ordinary number of credits expected: More than 63 credits were achieved instead of the 30 normally needed for programs designed to be accomplished in one year.”

Excess credits are estimated to cost more than $19 billion each year.