The University of Arizona doesn't offer remedial math instruction. But 908 of its students could be found in its classrooms taking one of two pre-college algebra courses taught by Pima Community College professors this fall.
“The reason why we don’t offer developmental math ourselves is we can’t afford it,” said Jerry Hogle, interim vice president for instruction at Arizona. "So many students come in under-prepared that we need to make accommodations for them but we couldn't go so far as to actually pay for remedial education ourselves," he explained, citing budget cuts and the long-standing policy view that developmental education isn't central to the research university's mission.
But the need for remediation hasn't gone away, and many Arizona students who couldn't place into college algebra were left shuttling to and from the local community college for math class. So while Pima has offered a limited number of remedial math classes on Arizona’s campus since 1995, the institutions formalized and significantly expanded the arrangement two years ago. The number of Arizona students taking Pima math at the Arizona campus -- and paying Pima tuition -- has grown tremendously in that time, from 263 students in all of 2005 to more than 900 just this fall.
“We're a community college. This is what we’re supposed to do -- to help the students, to get them through to the university and be successful at the University of Arizona. That's really what we do," said James E. Johnson, dean of instruction at Pima’s Community Campus.
Arizona is not alone in outsourcing remedial education through contractual agreements or partnerships with community colleges – a strategy that Michael W. Kirst, an emeritus professor of education and business administration at Stanford University, said “is more widespread than people realize.”
Remedial education is an expensive and extensive component of American higher education. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 42 percent of entering freshmen at public two-year colleges and 20 percent at public four-year institutions enrolled in at least one remedial course in 2000 – but, as Stanford’s Kirst points out, other estimates are higher. While the contractual arrangement with community colleges is not the dominant model for offering remedial education at four-year institutions, nor is it unique -- especially given policies and laws limiting remedial education at four-year colleges in some states.
“People have been doing it off and on for about 20 years, with varying degrees of success," said Hunter R. Boylan, director of the National Center for Developmental Education and a professor of higher education at Appalachian State University.
“Nobody who's done it has done any studies on whether or not it works. We don’t know if students are more or less successful in that model. There’s absolutely no data to either affirm or discredit the practice," Boylan said. He added that he's been dismayed that many state policymakers looking to limit costs have steered four-year colleges in this direction without any data to support the shift or a monitoring program in place.
“From my experience, one of several things can happen. Sometimes the community college will enter into a contract, hire adjuncts up the street and send them up to the university and students tend to have low pass-rates and high drop-out rates. On the other hand, they can take some of their first-rate faculty and send them up to teach at the university and students tend to be successful," Boylan said.
Four-year colleges with these partnerships in place cite efficient use of resources, the expertise of community college faculty in developmental education, and a desire to avoid duplicating services as reasons why they rely on community colleges to offer remedial education to their students.
“Funding is tight everywhere and we certainly want to take the best advantage of the resources we have,” said Evelyn Wilson-Martin, executive director for academic policy and curriculum at the University of Central Oklahoma. The university has offered developmental math and English courses taught by Rose State College faculty at its campus since 1994. “It plays to the strength of both institutions. Rose State, as a community college, is in the tier that has been designated in Oklahoma to provide that kind of support.”
“Our state regents were very anxious for us as a comprehensive university to get out of the business of doing remedial education and thought it was more appropriate to have the two-year college handle it," added Gail Gates, associate vice president for undergraduate education at Oklahoma State University at Stillwater, where remedial courses have been taught by Northern Oklahoma College faculty since 2003. "We lease them some space right on the edge of campus.”
In a 2002 pilot study on developmental education in New England conducted by the Institute for Higher Education Policy and the New England Resource Center for Higher Education, researchers found that outsourcing remedial courses to community colleges was one of several strategies adopted in the face of political pressures.
“The picture across the country at that time and still now is that state legislators were waking up to the fact that there were some pretty substantial numbers of kids going off to college who weren’t really prepared for college and that state resources were being spent to support these remedial efforts in four-year institutions,” Thomas D. Parker, senior associate at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, said in reference to the 2002 study. “Some of the politicians said, ‘This is not a good use of our money.’”
“My own view is whether this outsourcing works depends on what’s in the heart of the college or university when it makes the contract. Is it saying to itself, ‘This is a real messy business and I’d like to get this off our campus and somewhere else?’ Or is it saying to itself, 'These are the institutions [community colleges] who know what they’re doing?'"
“The truth is that four-year institutions have historically been pretty good at remediation,” Parker said, citing for instance the job land-grant universities did in getting veterans up to speed after passage of the GI Bill. But, he added, “I think most institutions want to do the best thing for the kids….This kind of work requires them to hire new people. The ordinary faculty in most cases won’t do this, they don’t see it as part of their mandate, so you’re almost setting up a kind of prep school within your four-year institution and that’s expensive. It’s especially expensive when you look right across the street at the community college and they know how to do it, they’re good at it, and have people who do it all the time.”