Community college can be improved by (re)targeting this roadblock

“What I’m hearing from faculty is that they are faced with students who are less prepared than they have ever been in their history of teaching,” said J.K. Daniels, dean of languages and literature at Northern Virginia Community College, says in a FutureEd report.

Community colleges must recommit to reforming developmental education courses, or dev-ed, to ensure K12 students hampered by the pandemic won’t crash out of the postsecondary track, declares a new report from FutureEd, a public policy think tank at Georgetown University.

Remedial classes have their roots in the late 19th century as a means to catch incoming students up on college-level coursework. However, the graduation rates for community college students plugged into traditional dev-ed classes fell below 10%, and Black, Hispanic and low-income students were disproportionately more likely to fail, according to a watershed report from Complete College America in 2012.

Dev-ed coursework was found to be dull, stigmatizing and a time-based barrier: Students are not granted college credit for these multi-semester classes, hindering their sense of progress. Moreover, many colleges may have “misassigned” as many as one in four students to remedial courses.

This revelation sprung states into action early last decade, but efforts have since stalled, Anne Kim, FutureEd report author and contributing editor for the Washington Monthly, writes. One national survey featuring over 2,700 faculty and administrators in 2020 found that roughly 40% of colleges and universities had implemented no developmental education reforms.

That same year, a report by New America found that half of the country’s Black community college students were taking dev-ed courses, while only 35% of white students were doing so. “Challenges related to campus governance, faculty autonomy, the jobs and revenue traditional dev-ed generates, students’ needs, and even simple inertia have conspired to hinder reform, including on campuses that made early advances,” Kim writes.

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For example, corequisite courses, a prominent solution to remedial education reform nationwide, led to a 57% bump in first-time college students enrolled in college-level math in California. However, insufficient staff levels, increased workload and the issues described by Kim limited progress.

FutureEd urges fresh initiative to reform dev-ed reform due to a “dire crisis in college preparation and readiness” caused by the pandemic. All-time-low ACT scores, for example, paint a bleak picture of the challenges high school graduates face adjusting to the next level.

“What I’m hearing from faculty is that they are faced with students who are less prepared than they have ever been in their history of teaching,” said J.K. Daniels, dean of languages and literature at Northern Virginia Community College, in an interview for the FutureEd report.

1. Engage faculty

The next phase of dev-ed reform requires sustained buy-in from those implementing it on the ground level: faculty. Institutions that provide faculty with the needed support to implement change are more likely to make progress, according to a 2022 report from Strong Start to Finish.

“I can write all the policy I want, and any legislator can pass any law they’d like,” said Tristan Denley, commissioner for academic innovation for the Louisiana Board of Regents, in an interview for the report. “But in the end, corequisite education happens between a faculty member and students that are in the classroom.”

Moreover, faculty who champion policy can convince other schools to follow suit even before it becomes legally binding, notes Corley Denison, vice chancellor for academic affairs at the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission. 

2. Collect data

Federal national data on dev-ed reform, which is nearly nonexistent today, would convince skeptical state leaders that there is room for improvement. Data would also help institutions explore new modes of remedial education—such as corequisite, compression or hybrids—and evaluate which works best.

3. Improve dev-ed reform models

The data that does exist yet may suggest that states should move away from corequisites and adopt new models to fix remedial education.

“I think [corequisites are] a piece of the arsenal,” said Melinda Karp, founder of the educational consultancy Phase Two, in an interview for the report. “But there are students who do co-req and still aren’t successful, which implies that maybe they do need more time or a different approach.”

The way colleges evaluate students as being “college ready” or “developmental” is too binary, Karp suggests. Instead, new approaches should adopt other accessibility models that follow the mantra of, “Meeting students where they are.”

“It’s study skills, it’s math skills, it’s language skills. It’s mindset,” Karp adds. “There are many pieces, and students can be ready in some of those and not in others.”

4. Use dev-ed reform as a springboard for college completion

Fixing remedial education may plug early exit points in student’s postsecondary journey, but it may not prevent them from stopping out later, a 2022 report from CAPR contends. While it is only one piece of the puzzle to increasing community college students’ success rate, it’s a necessary first step.

The CUNY Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) is an intensive, comprehensive initiative offered at nine of the 25 CUNY colleges, offering wraparound support services and dedicated advisers to associate degree-seeking students. Six other states have replicated this model. Among them is Tennessee, where 226,618 additional students finish gateway math and English every year and nearly half are Latino or Black.

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and first-generation journalism graduate from the University of Florida. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador and Brazil.

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