Remedial ed: Can it improve?

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?

Struggle can be ‘productive’ — or frustrating

Community college faculty are working to increase rigor in developmental education, write Melissa Barragan and Maria Scott Cormier in Inside Out, a publication of the Community College Research Center’s Scaling Innovation project. Three strategies predominate:

(1) aligning content with college-level course expectations, (2) providing consistent opportunities for students to construct knowledge, and (3) making struggle a part of the learning process. These strategies are not mutually exclusive; rather, they work together to contribute to enhanced rigor.

Some instructors stress “productive struggle,” making  students “wrestle with complex ideas and processes, and capitalize on their misunderstandings in ways that promote in-depth and transferable learning.”

However, others believe struggle frustrates students, especially underprepared students who’ve done poorly in school.

Struggle requires scaffolding, the Scaling Innovation researchers write.

In one developmental integrated reading and writing class we observed, students working in small groups were asked to respond to . . .  the following prompt: “Explain what the author means that many people believe that higher education is ‘the great equalizer.’ Does the author believe this? Do you think that education is an equalizer?”

These questions seized on subtle differences between what the writer reported and believed . . . The questions also asked students to construct knowledge by drawing on their own experiences and by coming to a conclusion about the impact of education on social mobility.

. . . (The instructor) noted passage topics and page numbers in the handout so that students did not spend valuable time trying to find relevant passages in the text. She also actively circulated among the groups to monitor their progress, addressing misunderstandings by redirecting students to the text and asking them to justify their interpretations. Her pedagogy emphasized discovery on the part of students and rarely involved providing students with the “correct” answer.

“Productive struggle” encourages students to “develop a healthy disposition toward uncertainty in their pursuit of skills and knowledge that they will later revisit and apply in other contexts.”

“Rigor is a slippery concept,” writes W. Norton Grubb in a response to the paper. Preparing students for college courses that require deeper comprehension, reasoning, problem solving and transfer of knowledge “requires different pedagogies, rather than more or different content.”

The problem is that there are instructors in virtually every college who have shifted to these classroom techniques, but they are usually isolated and reach relatively few students.

Getting most faculty to change their teaching approaches “requires reform strategies that go beyond individual classroom methods, and that are more collective or institutional.”

California study finds achievement gaps

“Disturbing” achievement gaps were found in a new study of what high school tests predict about students’ first year performance at community colleges, notes John Rosenberg on Minding the Campus.

The study measured students’ performance on the California Standards Test as high school juniors against their first year community college performance in four areas: the portion of the classes they took that transferable to the California State University system; the portion of remedial classes taken; and their grades in both types. In dramatically unsurprising findings. . .  the authors found that students with the best scores on the CST had higher grades their first year in community college and were enrolled in fewer remedial classes.

One finding was surprising: “Regardless of their academic achievements in high school, Asian and white students consistently enroll in more transferable courses than their Latino and black counterparts do,” the study found. Whites and Asians in the bottom 25% of CST performance enroll in more transferable courses that blacks and Hispanics in the top 25%.

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Latinos and blacks may have attended high schools with lower academic standards, start with less “college knowledge” and be sidelined by placement tests with cultural biases, Michal Kurlaender, an associate professor at the University of California at Davis’s School of Education, told Inside Higher Ed.

MOOCalypse soon?

Online learning will replace residential campuses predicts Nathan Harden in The End of the University as We Know It  in The American Interest.  Only the elite universities will have bricks, mortar and ivy.

The future looks like this: Access to college-level education will be free for everyone; the residential college campus will become largely obsolete; tens of thousands of professors will lose their jobs; the bachelor’s degree will become increasingly irrelevant; and ten years from now Harvard will enroll ten million students.

Community colleges will survive, writes Rob Jenkins, a Georgia Perimeter College English professor, in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

MOOCs or other forms of mass education can’t provide the workforce development and training sought by many community college students.

Most technical training is by nature hands-on, requiring extensive facilities and on-site instructors. (Honestly, would you want to have your hair cut by someone who learned how to do it by watching the equivalent of YouTube videos?) Many companies do not have their own training facilities and count on local community colleges to provide skilled workers. That is unlikely to change anytime soon.

It’s also unlikely that students who need remediation will succeed in a MOOC, Jenkins writes. These students need instructors.

Community colleges could outsource many of their courses to elite universities via MOOCs, writes Harden. They could serve more students with fewer faculty, lowering costs.

Community colleges have “figured out how to make online courses as personal as possible, which seems to be the key for the vast majority of students,” Jenkins writes.

. . .  MOOCs and other such “innovations” . . . seem to appeal mostly to students who are already well educated.

Often those students are either professionals seeking to gain additional expertise in their fields or people looking to expand their intellectual horizons—like the engineer who takes an advanced poetry course just because she likes poetry and didn’t have an opportunity to pursue that interest in college.

In other words, these are highly motivated, extremely self-directed learners. But the vast majority of undergraduates who register for online classes are not either of those things—especially in required core courses they don’t really want to take. That’s why online faculty members at community colleges have worked so hard for years to make their courses as student-friendly as possible.

Most online students “will seek out the smaller ‘classrooms’ and more personalized online experience offered by community colleges, rather than the faceless crowds of MOOCs,” Jenkins predicts.

MOOCs let students take courses taught by famous professors from Stanford or MIT. But these famous professors aren’t necessarily great teachers, writes Jenkins. Great teachers “can be found disproportionately at community colleges.” And there won’t be 10,000 students in the class.

While many four-year colleges and universities require students to borrow heavily, community colleges are  “a great value,” Jenkins concludes.

In my state, tuition and fees for a full-time student at a two-year college are about a third of what students pay at one of the state’s large research institutions, and about half of what they pay at the smaller, regional universities. Many of our students also live at home, which reduces their expenses even more.

. . . As long as students are looking for inexpensive courses that transfer easily, with excellent teaching, a supportive environment, and a variety of options—both online and face-to-face—community colleges will continue to thrive.

I think Jenkins is right about the survival of community colleges — and Harden is right about the demise of non-elite residential colleges and universities.

If I were an entrepreneur, I’d develop “college experience” apartment complexes for 18- to 24-year-olds. There’d be keggers, pizza parties, frisbee contests and a designated football and basketball team to root for. There’d be T-shirts and sweatshirts with the complex’s name and tastefully designed logo. Residents who wanted a degree could study online; others could enjoy the experience without paying tuition.

College ‘connects’ remedial students with career paths

Low-level remedial students “have almost zero chance” to succeed in college without guidance and support, says Myrna Gonzalez, a developmental reading and writing instructor at Houston’s San Jacinto College. But the odds are improving. Gonzalez helped start Intentional Connections, which provides mentors to evaluate students’ career interests and academic issues, introduce them to faculty and let them “test drive” different programs.

“For example, if a student says he or she is sort of interested in culinary arts, then we introduce the student to the culinary arts department chair, and the student gets to attend two or three culinary arts classes (not for credit) to see if it will be a good fit. If that does not work out, then the student can test drive another program.”

Charles Powell is studying auto collision repair and improving his reading skills, thanks to Intentional Connections. He plans to earn a certificate and work in a body shop.

Some advocate placing low-level remedial students in Adult Basic Education (ABE), which is part of the K-12 system. Community colleges have expertise in educating adult learners, said Rebecca Goosen, associate vice chancellor for college preparatory programs. “At a college, low-performing developmental students can learn job skills in craft trades, they can get valuable on-the-job training through internships, they can earn occupational certificates, while at the same time they improve in core subjects like math and writing. They may not receive that type of education and training in ABE programs.”

To live up to their potential community colleges should create career pathways for remedial students, writes Mandy Zatynski on The Quick and the Ed.

Lake Area Technical Institute in South Dakota, a two-time finalist for the prestigious Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, identifies different sets of readiness requirements for each of its programs, which has “virtually eliminated the necessity for remedial education.”

Lake Area Technical Institute touts a 76 percent completion rate, double the national average.

MDRC: Learning community raises grad rate

Learning communities helped students complete a degree at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, according to MDRC’s  Opening Doors demonstration. In their first semester, groups of 25 students took an orientation course, English and a course required for their major; they also received enhanced counseling, tutoring and textbook vouchers.

Compared to a control group, students in Opening Doors Learning Communities were 4.6 percentage points more likely to earn a degree within six years. Furthermore, the cost per degree earned was lower for students who’d been in a learning community.

An earlier MDRC report found only modest short-term results for learning community programs aimed at developmental education students. However, Kingsborough’s program was more comprehensive and included both college-ready and remedial students. In addition to linking three courses and providing counseling and tutoring, the college extended some services into the trailing summer or winter intersession. In addition, the program recruited students intending to enroll in college full time. College leaders provided unusually strong support.

Summer bridge’s benefits don’t last

Summer bridge programs don’t help developmental students earn more credits or persist longer in college, concludes Bridging the Gap, a two-year study at six Texas community colleges and two state universities with open admissions. High school graduates who attended the summer sessions were more likely to pass college-level math and writing in their first year and a half of college than similar students in the control group. But the benefits didn’t last.

The National Center for Postsecondary Research tracked 1,300 mostly Hispanic students.

The intensive summer programs range in length from four to five weeks and provide up to six hours a day of instruction in math, reading and/or writing, as well as academic tutoring and college advising. Final results of the study reveal that students in the program—who tested below college-level at the start of the summer—were 7 percentage points more likely to pass college-level math and 5 percentage points more likely to pass college-level writing in the first year and half after participating. By spring, 2011 – the fifth semester after attending the program –program students were still slightly more likely to have passed these classes, but the difference was no longer statistically significant.

The average cost was $1,319 per student.


New GED tests college readiness

The GED will add a college-readiness section in hopes of replacing Accuplacer, a popular placement test used by community colleges, writes Paul Fain on Inside Higher Ed.  GED earners who qualify as college ready should be able to earn a C or better in college-level classes, said a GED spokesman, CT Turner.

The new computer-based GED will take seven hours to complete the high school equivalency and a “college- and career-ready” sections.

The new GED will be a more complex, harder test. It will draw from common core standards many states have adopted. And instead of being a pass-fail test, the GED will provide “enhanced score reporting.”

The test will be broken into subject areas for literacy, math, science and social studies. Students will need to meet a minimum score on all to earn high-school equivalency credentials, Turner said. But the college-readiness assessment will be subject-by-subject, meaning a student could place out of remedial math while not passing literacy, and require college remediation in English.

College Board’s Accuplacer and ACT’s Compass place too many students in dead-end remedial classes, according to research by the Community College Research Center.  College placement “based on one test not a good idea,” said researcher Clive Belfield, who doubted the new GED will prove superior to Accuplacer.  “Colleges need to get multiple measures.”

How to pick a community college

Do your research to pick the best community college in your area, advises CNN Money. There can be big differences in graduation and transfer rates.

“Somebody who is choosing a community college should be as careful as they are in choosing a four-year college,” says Thomas Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University.

Community college shoppers can look at the school’s success rate, as compiled by College Measures, and check graduation and transfer statistics on the federal College Navigator site.

More tips:

Call the four-year college or university you’d eventually like to transfer to, and ask which community colleges they accept the most students from.

Ask the community colleges you are considering if they have an honors program for which you could qualify. Many community colleges with low or average overall success rates have separate honors programs that graduate or transfer a high percentage of their students, notes Bailey. A list of colleges with honors programs can be found at the National Collegiate Honors Council site.

Ask the community college if they have any guaranteed transfer programs to four-year universities and what course and grade requirements you must meet to qualify. If they don’t have guaranteed programs, ask which universities have “articulation agreements” that will at least give you some guaranteed credits.

Call the office for a specific program you’re interested in and find out about their success rates. “Just because the [community] college’s overall graduation rate is low doesn’t mean their nursing program isn’t great,” says Schneider.

If you’re likely to need basic skills classes in math, writing or reading, ask the college how they teach remedial courses. Is there a way to move quickly through catch-up classes or start at the college level with extra help?

CUNY pilot boosts college success

Accelerated, intensive study seems to be working for low-income students at three City University of New York (CUNY) community colleges, concludes an MDRC evaluation. Students in Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) were more likely to complete remedial coursework successfully; they also earned more credits than the control group.

ASAP requires students to attend college full time and provides a rich array of supports and incentives for up to three years, with a goal of graduating at least 50 percent of students within three years. Unlike many programs, ASAP aims to simultaneously address multiple barriers to student success over many semesters. The program model includes some block-scheduled classes for ASAP students for the first year of the program; an ASAP seminar for at least the first year, which covers such topics as goal-setting and academic planning; comprehensive advisement; tutoring; career services; a tuition waiver that covers any gap between a student’s financial aid and tuition and fees; free MetroCards for use on public transportation; and free use of textbooks.

ASAP students at Borough of Manhattan, Kingsborough, and LaGuardia colleges who needed one or two remedial courses were compared with similar students who received the colleges’ regular services and classes.

During the study’s first semester, ASAP increased full-time enrollment by 11 percentage points: 96 percent of the students assigned to ASAP enrolled full time, compared with 85 percent of the comparison group.

ASAP increased the average number of credits earned during the first semester by 2.1 credits and increased the proportion of students who completed their developmental coursework by the end of that semester by 15 percentage points.

Semester-to-semester retention. ASAP increased the proportion of students who enrolled in college during the second semester by 10 percentage points and increased full-time enrollment that semester by 21 percentage points.

ASAP offers a more comprehensive package of financial aid, services, and supports than most programs designed to raise community college graduation rates, MDRC notes. The effects — at least in the early stages — are more significant.