Remedial education at community colleges frequently must serve both students fresh from high school and those who have been out of the classroom for years, if not decades. But do older and younger students respond differently to remediation? And should two-year institutions think about the groups differently when considering their needs? Yes and yes, according to a new report from the Community College Research Center at Teachers College at Columbia University.
The study, "Stepping Stones to a Degree: The Impact of Enrollment Pathways and Milestones on Older Community College Student Outcomes, is slated to be released in the November 2007 edition of Research in Higher Education. It shows that older students who enrolled in remedial courses – particularly in mathematics – were "less negatively" affected in terms of time to program completion than were younger students who also took the courses.
Specifically, younger students who took remedial courses were 42 percent less likely to graduate than their peers who weren’t in the stepping-stone classes. Older students needing remediation decreased their odds of graduation in a particular term by 23 percent. A key factor in both cases is that remedial classes rarely count toward a student's graduation.
The study also found that, after controlling for factors such as test scores and enrollment patters, older students were more likely to graduate in a given period and less likely to be motivated by credit milestones -- such as passing an introductory class - than their younger counterparts.
In short, the report suggests that traditional students who take remedial courses at a two-year college are likely to need more motivation than adult students, who tend to see remediation as a brush up.
“Older students are more dogged,” said Davis Jenkins, a senior research associate at CCRC. “Younger students are not always as determined, and the negative experience of taking remediation hurts them worse.”
Or, as the report says: “It is likely that older students, having been out of school longer, were more likely to need some remediation (but not a lot) because their basic skills were merely 'rusty' rather than grossly deficient.”
The researchers based their report on data from about 30,000 traditional students and 5,700 older students who were first-time, degree-seeking community college students enrolled any time between fall 1998 and spring 2004.
Researchers found that about 60 percent of students were taking remedial classes, and that those students were, as a whole, less likely to graduate in a given term than their counterparts who did not need remediation.
For students enrolled in remedial writing, passing a standard, first-year composition course more than doubled their odds of graduation – with little difference between age groups. But among students who passed a basic college algebra course, the odds of graduation were much higher for younger students than their adult classmates -- suggesting that for the students right out of high school, gaining confidence in their academic abilities early on is vital.
All this is fodder for those who believe age of students in remedial courses is a key determinate of their classroom needs.
“This suggests that community colleges target different support services for different groups,” Jenkins said. “Most community colleges base class placement on test scores and lump all students into a semester-long course. Maybe it makes sense for them to offer a short, brush-up seminar for adults, and to put more energy into counseling programs for the younger student who isn't engaged."
The report says that attention should be paid to traditional students to help pass “gatekeeper” courses, which substantially increase the chance that they will go on to graduate. These students would benefit from orientation to college life courses and intensive advising, according to the study.
For adult learners, researchers say shorter courses with flexible schedules might be more appropriate, particularly given the likelihood that the students are juggling a career and a family.
Kent Phillippe, a senior research associate at the American Association of Community Colleges, said that he agrees that a more nuanced look at remediation is needed.
"It's important to look at students' trajectories and their needs," he said. "Earning credits early in their first year is important for traditional-age students."