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Long Road to 'Gatekeeper' Courses

December 3, 2009

A new study of community college “gatekeeper” courses – those at the first level of college credit – raises as many questions about remedial education strategies as about the introductory college-level courses.

The study tracked more than 24,000 students who entered a community college in Virginia in 2004, to determine their patterns in reaching and passing (or not) the gatekeeper courses. Most students never completed the gatekeeper courses, but in many cases that’s because these students never enrolled in them, having started and finished their educations in remediation. The rates of reaching college-level work were particularly low for those requiring multiple remedial courses to reach college work.

The research was conducted and released by the Community College Research Center of Columbia University Teachers College, which has conducted numerous analyses of remedial education efforts.

Among the findings in Virginia:

  • A majority of the entering student cohort studied never completed gatekeeper courses in English; just over one quarter completed in mathematics.
  • Most students never ended up enrolling in the courses, but among those who did, the passage rate was 75 percent.
  • Students who needed remedial courses and completed them and then enrolled in the gatekeeper courses did as well in them as did students who didn’t need remediation.
  • Students who needed multiple remedial courses stood very little chance of even reaching the gatekeeper courses. For instance, less than 20 percent of those enrolled in the lowest level of developmental mathematics (pre-algebra) even enrolled in the gatekeeper math courses.
  • Much of the drop off takes place before students even start. Only between 50 and 60 percent of students who were urged to take remedial courses enrolled in the courses that were suggested to them. In some cases, however, those who ignored the recommendations did as well as those who followed them (in later courses). The study cautions that this doesn’t mean that remedial education is ineffective, but could suggest that different students have different types of educational needs, and may succeed on different paths.

Given these findings, the study recommends that the state’s community colleges consider a variety of policies that might get students more quickly into gatekeeper courses. Among the approaches suggested for further study:

  • Surveys of students to find out why so many don’t enroll in either gatekeeper courses or the recommended remedial courses.
  • Creating new paths to speed the way to gatekeeper courses, such as encouraging more students to enroll full time so they can tackle pre-college work in a more intense way.
  • Consider “mainstreaming” remedial students so that some may take gatekeeper courses right away (perhaps receiving additional support).

 

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