Most community college students enroll in remedial classes. Most remedial students never earn a credential. However, ending remediation won’t raise completion rates, argue USC Professor William G. Tierney and graduate student Julia C. Duncheon in an Inside Higher Ed commentary.
Reformers are targeting remedial education, they write.
Lawmakers in Florida have made remedial classes in math, reading and English optional for students entering community colleges in fall 2014. The placement tests to assess these skills will be optional as well.
Meantime, Tennessee and Connecticut have passed legislation making it easier for students to bypass remediation and enroll directly in courses that lead to graduation and completion of a major. And California State University has lowered its math and English placement test cutoff scores, requiring fewer students to do remedial coursework.
Unprepared students who enroll in remedial classes don’t do any better than similar students who skip remediation, according to Community College Research Center studies. But other research suggests very low-skilled students benefit from remedial education, write Tierney and Duncheon.
Before making remedial classes optional — or eliminating them — colleges should try other options, they argue.
“Accelerated” (or “mainstreaming”) programs mix low- and high-performing students in college-level classes. Students can get extra help in a support class or lab.
Some colleges create “learning communities” for low-scoring students, while others create mixed groups. At Kingsborough Community College in New York, low-scoring students in learning communities took and passed more college-level courses.
Many students — especially graduates of low-performing, high-poverty high schools — need an academic safety net, Tierney and Duncheon argue. Throwing unprepared students into college coursework will not raise completion rates.
In an essay, a journalism professor recalls a pleasant, hard-working journalism major who was “illiterate.” She’d received B’s in English before, she claimed. He struggled with whether to fail her — until she plagiarized.
How did “Kari” get so far in college without being able to read or write?
“Florida colleges will let students opt out of remedial coursework, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education.
That’s a bad idea,writes Amber Bradley in a letter to the editor. “Some students who are genuinely not ready for college level coursework will opt to take the college level class and not succeed.” Instead, students should be allowed to retake the placement exam, she proposes.
Also, it is important for counselors to reiterate the importance of the placement exam . . . . Another suggestion is to offer these remedial classes the summer before the start of the student’s first semester so that once school commences, the student is caught up to the proper level class.
Bradley is a graduate student in education at University of Southern California.
California’s 112 community colleges may seek permission to offer bachelor’s degrees, reports Inside Higher Ed. A committee is studying the question.
A bachelor’s degree option could “increase college participation rates for local residents who are unable to relocate because of family or work commitments,” said Community Colleges Chancellor Brice Harris’s office, in a statement.
Twenty-one states now let two-year colleges offer some four-year degrees, especially in technical and occupational fields. Florida is a leader in expanding four-year options at community colleges, which are now called ”state colleges.”
However, there’s plenty of pushback, Inside Higher Ed notes. Public universities don’t like to compete for students and state funding. In Michigan, public universities are fighting a new law that lets community colleges offer bachelor’s degrees in technical fields.
While some at community colleges worry about “mission creep,” others say a four-year option makes sense.
Community colleges cannot meet the demand for skilled workers in technical fields, said Bill Scroggins, president and CEO of Mt. San Antonio College.
Those jobs are also changing, said Scroggins, who is a committee member. Many employers are have added new hiring requirements for applicants to hold bachelor’s degrees. Nursing is a key example. As a result, two-year degrees no longer cut it in certain fields.
The 16-member committee is considering “applied” baccalaureates in nursing and technical fields.
Increasing need-based aid helped low-income Florida students stay in school, enroll in a public university and earn a bachelor’s degree in six years, concludes a National Bureau of Economic Research study by Benjamin Castleman and Bridget Terry Long.
Looking Beyond Enrollment: College Access, Persistence, and Graduation investigated the Florida Student Access Grant, which supplements the federal Pell Grant, reports Inside Higher Ed.
. . . researchers compared students who were eligible for the $1,300 FSAG grant with students whose expected family contribution amounts were just above the cutoff, but were still eligible for Pell Grants. So presumably the students who received an FSAG grant came from similar low-income backgrounds as the ones who did not.
. . . “Our paper isn’t looking at aid vs. no aid,” said Castleman, an acting assistant professor of education at the University of Virginia. “We’re looking at how a greater amount of aid affects students. In the context of need-based aid, increasing the aid which students were eligible for had a range of positive outcomes.”
The additional $1,300 in grant aid eligibility increased the probability of immediate enrollment at a public, four-year university by 12 percent. Those students were also likelier — by 4.3 percentage points — to stay continuously enrolled through the spring semester of their freshman year.
The FSAG grant had the biggest impact on students who graduated in the top 25 percent of their high school class. “I think our work suggests that there is a population of kids who are from economically disadvantaged backgrounds but have worked hard in high school to make college a reality,” Castleman said. “Giving additional aid has a profound impact in helping these students not only get to college, but to also earn a degree down the road.”
States are trying to prevent, accelerate or limit remedial education, reports Stateline. But some say remedial reforms will doom the college hopes of poorly prepared students.
Indiana high schools must provide extra help to students at risk of placing into remedial classes in college.
Florida will let many public college students skip developmental classes and enroll in college-level courses.
Colorado now lets state universities place borderline students in college-level classes, with extra support, instead of sending them to community colleges for remedial classes.
Starting in fall 2014, Connecticut’s public colleges will be required to build remedial education into credit-bearing courses. Students will be allowed only one semester of remediation.
Many of the new remediation models work very well for students who need minimal extra help, said Patti Levine-Brown, president of the National Association for Developmental Education. But for students who need more time to get their skills up to college level, she said, “placing them in courses for which they are not prepared is akin to setting them up for failure.”
“We learned in the 1960s that allowing students to take and fail college level courses and retake those classes did not increase completion rates,” Levine-Brown said. “In fact, it resulted in high withdrawal rates and diminished finances for students.”
Unprepared students will pay a price for skipping remediation, predicts Kenneth Ross, vice president for academic and student services at Polk State College in Florida. “I think they’re going to struggle, and unless we have some other kind of massive tutoring support which they’ve not funded us for, they’re going . . . to struggle and then flunk out.”
The Gates Foundation has spent $472 million on higher education since 2006, according to a Chronicle of Higher Education special report. Some $343-million was spent after January 2008, when the foundation announced it would focus on helping low-income young people complete college credentials. The Lumina Foundation, the largest private foundation devoted solely to higher education, “spent a little more than half that amount over the same period” on a similar completion agenda.
Gates’s rise occurs as an unusual consensus has formed among the Obama White House, other private foundations, state lawmakers, and a range of policy advocates, all of whom have coalesced around the goal of graduating more students, more quickly, and at a lower cost, with little discussion of the alternatives. Gates hasn’t just jumped on the bandwagon; it has worked to build that bandwagon . . .
Gates-funded research has spurred state lawmakers to limit remediation and link higher ed funding to graduation rates and other success measures, reports the Chronicle.
“Working alongside the Lumina Foundation through intermediaries like Complete College America and another nonprofit, Jobs for the Future, the Gates Foundation has helped influence higher-education policy at the state level to a degree that may be unprecedented for a private foundation.”
Complete College America has persuaded 32 states, plus the District of Columbia, to join an alliance dedicated to improving college completion rates.
Critics say Gates and its allies push too hard for completion at the expense of educational quality.
“You create this whole hyped-up, get-it-done-fast mentality,” says Debra Humphreys, vice president for policy and public engagement for the Association of American Colleges and Universities.
Remediation reforms, such as pushing students quickly into credit-bearing courses, are creating pushback.
Lydia Jandreau, a 44-year-old massage therapist, needed two semesters of remedial math to prepare for a nursing program at Gateway Community College, in Connecticut. Starting next year, Gateway will be allowed to offer only a single semester.
With one semester, “I could have muddled by with a C and gotten the basic concepts,” Ms. Jandreau says. “But the way I look at it, I’m building my academic house, and I want it to have a solid foundation.”
A Connecticut legislator sponsored the law limiting remedial courses after attending a Complete College America “remediation institute,” notes the Chronicle.
Only a quarter of community college students who start in remedial courses earn a certificate or associate degree within eight years, says Stan Jones, president of Complete College America.
Saverio Perugini, a professor and academic coordinator of the math department at Gateway, says Connecticut’s new law will “put the kibosh” on his department’s own efforts to streamline remediation.
While he understands the frustration in seeing so few students who start out in remedial education succeed, limiting them to a single semester of remediation isn’t likely to work for students who are too far behind, he worries. “How do you add polynomials if you can’t add basic numbers?” he asks. “It’s like taking a Little Leaguer and putting him straight into the majors.”
Many remediation experts agree. Patti Levine-Brown, president of the National Association for Developmental Education, says the push to eliminate most free-standing developmental-education courses ignores academic research showing that poor and minority students will be disproportionately hurt if they’re placed in college courses before they’re ready.
Influenced by Complete College’s research, Tennessee now allows remedial coursework in community colleges, but not state universities. Florida lets students decide if they’ll take remedial courses.
Complete College America also encourages states to link a portion of state higher education funding to colleges’ graduation rates.
Starting in 2014, most Florida community college students will be able to skip remediation — and placement tests – to start in college-level, for-credit courses, reports the Orlando Sentinel. In addition to the state’s 28 community colleges, the new policy applies to Florida A&M University, the only state university that offers remedial coursework.
“It is no longer a one-size-fits-all system,” said Randy Hanna, chancellor of the Division of Florida Colleges. “Our goal is to get people successfully out of developmental-ed courses and receiving a degree and moving on to a university or moving on to a job as soon as possible. This legislation will give us the flexibility that we need.”
Those who choose developmental education will have more options, including accelerated courses designed to get them quickly to the college level. Colleges also are supposed to add tutoring and lab support to help poorly prepared students pass for-credit classes.
To determine college readiness, counselors will consider work experience and high school grades, in addition to test scores. But recent Florida high school graduates and active-duty service members can enroll in college-level classes, ready or not.
Students may overestimate their abilities, fail and lose financial aid eligibility, said Karen Borglum, Valencia College’s assistant vice president for curriculum and articulation. Failing a class twice is expensive: Floridians have to pay the out-of-state rate — three times more — on their third try. ”Students are going to be expected to really understand the consequences of their choices,” Borglum said.
Creating structured pathways to graduation will help more community college students achieve their goals, said presenters at the American Association of Community Colleges meeting in San Francisco.
Completion by Design, a Gates Foundation initiative, is working with community colleges on mandatory student advising and structured course sequences, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education. College leaders from North Carolina, Ohio and Florida discussed their efforts.
Jobs for the Future‘s completion campaign focuses on getting students into college-level classes as quickly as possible.
Many students who end up in remedial courses don’t need to be there, but they don’t realize the importance of the tests that colleges often use as the sole placement criterion, said Gretchen Schmidt, a program director at Jobs for the Future. ”They didn’t prepare, they had kids in the hall running around, or they rushed through the test to get back to work … and as a result they ended up two levels down” in developmental courses.
Students who start in remedial courses rarely earn a degree. Recent research has shown students placed in high-level developmental courses do just as well at the college level.
North Carolina now lets high school graduates with a 2.6 grade point average or better skip community college placement tests and start at the college level.
A new Connecticut law limits state funding for remedial education to a single course.
Florida may “cut off nearly all support for stand-alone remedial education,” reports the Chronicle.
Lenore P. Rodicio, director of Miami Dade College‘s Completion by Design effort, worries that’s going too far.
“Seventy percent of our students come in needing some kind of remedial education, many of them from low socioeconomic backgrounds, and this could close the door to them,” she said.
Her college offers a one-week boot camp for students who place into remedial education to allow them to zero in on the skills they need to improve, and it’s looking at other ways to get students into credit-bearing courses faster.
In another session, California Community Colleges chancellor Brice Harris discussed the state’s new “student-success agenda,” which includes encouraging students to develop a study plan, dropping reliance on a single remedial placement test and giving new students priority for registration over perennial students who aren’t moving toward a credential.
Credits that don’t count cost transfer students time, money — and often the opportunity to complete a degree, according to the Hechinger Report.
“One of the most common complaints a legislator gets from a constituent about higher education is, ‘My credits don’t transfer,’” says Davis Jenkins, senior researcher at Teachers College, Columbia University, who has studied the issue.
“This is so common, but it’s heart-rending,” Jenkins says. “And it also pisses me off as a taxpayer.”
A third of students transfer at least once, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center says. Most lose credits along the way. Full-time students average 3.8 years to earn a two-year degree and 4.7 years to get a four-year degree, according to Complete College America. An associate degree requires 60 credits, but the average graduate has earned 80, the advocacy group estimates. Bachelor’s degree graduates average 136.5 credits for a degree that requires 120.
Part of the problem is that public universities are largely funded based on their enrollment, not on whether students actually graduate. So while an institution has a financial incentive to take transfer students to fill seats left vacant when other students drop out, it may not have a financial incentive to help them successfully finish college and move on.
Karen Hernandez started at St. John’s University in New York and transferred after a year and a half to Nassau Community College, with 27 of the 36 credits she’d earned and paid for. After another year and a half, she received an associate’s degree. Then she transferred to Columbia University with 55 of her 63 credits. After three years in college, she faces another three years to complete a bachelor’s degree in art history and human rights. (And, if she graduates, she’ll have a hard time finding a job and paying off her college loans with an art history and human rights degree.)
University faculty often question the quality of courses taught at other institutions.
“Everybody feels that the way they do it is the right way,” says Janet L. Marling, director of the National Institute for the Study of Transfer Students at the University of North Georgia. “To admit that somebody else does it equally well can chip away at their foothold.”
Sometimes students are told their credits will transfer, but don’t realize they won’t count toward their major. They end up with too many electives credits that don’t help them complete a degree. Others don’t learn if their credits transfer for a semester or more.
Some states have passed laws to guarantee associate degree graduates can transfer all their credits to a state university. But it’s a slow process.
It took Florida 10 years to bring its universities and colleges into line on transfer credits, for example. An analysis by a technical college in North Carolina found that only one of its English courses was accepted for core credit by all 16 of that state’s public universities. And some legislative efforts to make universities fix the transfer process have slammed up against the culture of competition.
Almost three years after California legislators demanded that anyone who earns an associate’s degrees at a community college be guaranteed transfer into the California State University system, for instance, students in two-thirds of all majors still don’t qualify, college and university officials there concede.
As more students take online courses, getting credits counted will become even more important. I predict that learning assessment will boom in the coming years as universities come under heavy political pressure to raise graduation rates by crediting what students have learned at other institutions, online, on the job, in the military or whatever.
Improving completion requires understanding the higher education “ecosystem,” writes Sanford C. Shugart, president of Aspen Prize-winning Valencia College in Florida.
Community colleges “are being asked to achieve much better results with fewer resources to engage a needier student population in an atmosphere of serious skepticism where all journalism is yellow and our larger society no longer exempts our institutions (nor us) from the deep distrust that has grown toward all institutions,” writes Shugart in Inside Higher Ed.
His principles for moving the needle on student completion start with a caution: “Be careful what and how you are measuring — it is sure to be misused.”
. . . Consider a student who comes to a community college, enrolls full-time, and after a year of successful study is encouraged to transfer to another college. This student is considered a noncompleter at the community college and isn’t considered in the measure of the receiving institution at all.
. . . Is there any good reason to exclude part-time students from the measures? How about early transfers? Should non-degree-seeking students be in the measure? When is a student considered to be degree‐seeking? How are the measures, inevitably used to compare institutions with very different missions, calibrated to those missions? How can transfer be included in the assessment and reporting when students swirl among so many institutions, many of which don’t share student unit record information easily?
Completion rates should be calculated for different groups depending on where they start — college ready? low remedial? — so students can calculate their own odds and colleges can design interventions, Shugart recommends. College outcomes measures should be based on college-ready students and should reflect the value added during the college years.
Students experience higher education as an “ecosystem,” Shugart writes. Few community college students get all their education at one institution.
They swirl in and among, stop out, start back, change majors, change departments, change colleges. . . . Articulation of credit will have to give way to carefully designed pathways that deepen student learning and accelerate their progression to completion.
Students need to know that completion matters, writes Shugart. Florida has “the country’s strongest 2+2 system of higher education” with common course numbering, ”statewide articulation agreements that work” and a history of successful transfers. Yet community college students are told to transfer when they’re “ready,” regardless of whether they’ve completed an associate degree.
Students at Valencia, Seminole State, Brevard and Lake Sumter are offered a new model, “Direct Connect,” which guarantees University of Central Florida admission to all associate degree graduates in the region. “It is something they can count on, plan for, and commit to. Earn the degree and you are in.”
Learning is what matters, Shugart adds. Increasing completion rates improves the local economy and community only if students learn “deeply and effectively in a systematic program of study, with a clearer sense of purpose in their studies and their lives.”
He suggests: designing degree pathways across institutional boundaries, encouraging students to “make earlier, more grounded choices of major,” requiring an associate degree to transfer and providing transfer guarantees. In addition, Shugart calls for research on higher education ecosystems and new metrics for measuring performance.