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The skills gap, that chasm between the needs of the labor market and the capabilities of the available workforce, is one of the most pressing threats to Michigan’s economy. But while the state is spending millions to close the gap by expanding access to college credentials and good jobs, those efforts will fall short without a crucial, under-the-radar reform effort—transforming the delivery of developmental education.

What’s at Stake?

Traditionally, the story goes like this: someone loses a job or otherwise hits a dead end in their career. They’ve heard that getting more education is the best solution to getting back on track—to earn a degree or to gain job-relevant skills. And they follow through.

But after showing up at one of Michigan’s community colleges, the returning student is given a high-stakes test in math and English to see if they are “ready” for college-level work. For most working adults who have been out of school for five or 10 or 20 years, the test will find that they are unprepared, with a score that isn’t high enough to start in college-level courses.

The student is then placed in a series of courses designed to get them up to speed. But the courses don’t usually count toward a degree or other useful credential. And the student faces long odds of ever completing the series. These courses may be intended to help students. But in reality, they just put them further behind.

Fortunately, we’re making changes in Michigan, because the stakes couldn’t be higher for students. Typically, fewer than 25 percent of students who are placed in remedial or developmental courses go on to complete any college-level math or English courses. Yet students spend their time and money in these courses while burning through their financial aid.

And the students who are most likely to be in these courses are disproportionately low-income, students of color and the first in their family to attend college. Too many of these students get discouraged and leave college without a credential, without transferring, without realizing any of the goals that brought them to college in the first place. Then they struggle in the job market and can’t repay student loans.

The good news is that we know how to do better. An overwhelming body of research shows that far more students are capable of being successful in college-level courses than currently enroll in them. Likewise, studies have shown the effectiveness of key reforms, such as relying on high school grades instead of testing and placing students with developmental needs into college-level courses while providing them with extra help.

And Michigan colleges have begun making those changes. But up until recently, the progress has been uneven.

A Much-Needed Jolt

The Michigan Center for Student Success began surveying the state’s community colleges in 2016 to gauge their progress in adopting developmental education reforms, including corequisite delivery models. We found interest and experimentation but little movement at scale, particularly in math. Change is hard, and the colleges lacked incentives to transform structures that typically have been in place for 30 years or more.

To jump-start the process, the Michigan Legislature included developmental education reform in the Michigan Reconnect Grant Act of 2020. This scholarship guaranteed tuition-free community college to returning adult students. But to be eligible to accept those scholarships, the law required colleges to ensure that grant recipients could accelerate their progress into college-level gateway courses in math and English by adopting one of three delivery models for developmental education.

The 2020 legislation also mandated convening a group of stakeholders—from colleges, state government, business and philanthropy—to recommend best practices for adopting new models for delivering developmental education and determining who receives support. This workgroup, led by Michigan’s Office of Sixty by 30, recommended that colleges universally adopt the corequisite model. In this approach, students enroll in gateway college-level math or English courses and are given additional tutoring and support that is either embedded in the course or offered as a separate course taken during the same semester.

To better align the legislative requirements with the recommendations from the Sixty by 30 workgroup, in December 2022 legislators passed a revised Reconnect Act that, among other changes, requires colleges to allow Reconnectors to enroll in college-level gateway courses in math and English from their first semester, with corequisite support if needed.

While nudges from lawmakers aren’t exactly pleasant, similar approaches have worked in other states. And Michigan is the first state to tie eligibility for a promising free college program to developmental education reform. It was a common-sense move. Channeling Reconnectors into prerequisite remedial courses would create an unacceptable barrier to their success, particularly for the many students who have been away from education for years.

The initial push from lawmakers and stakeholders prompted significant movement. In a survey of developmental education practices in spring 2022, the Michigan Center for Student Success found that a majority of colleges have moved to corequisite models for remediation in English and a critical mass have begun making the shift in math. But much work still remains.

In addition to adopting corequisite delivery, the Sixty by 30 workgroup recommended that colleges move away from high-stakes testing for placement into developmental courses, and as of spring 2022, only four out of 28 appeared to be relying solely on placement tests to determine support needs. Most colleges now use a selection of measures to assess students’ preparation, including high school GPA, SAT or ACT test scores, leaving placement tests as a fallback measure.

The model recommended by the Sixty by 30 workgroup, however, is guided self-placement. In this scenario, advisers provide students with information about the academic expectations of college-level English and math courses and the available support, allowing students to choose for themselves whether or not to get the extra help.

What’s Next?

This is a crucial phase of the work to ensure that Michiganders have access to college-level learning. The reform effort so far has led to pockets of improvement. But we’ve yet to achieve the level of statewide effort—and impact—that stands to change thousands of lives.

Dismantling a decades-old fixture of education is an enormous task. It requires fundamental shifts in how colleges operate, as well as:

  • Support for faculty members so they can lead this crucial work and successfully teach in a new model.
  • Better advising, tutoring and other supports for students.
  • The redesign of deeply ingrained college processes and curriculums.
  • Statewide collection, monitoring and reporting on who completes initial college-level math and English courses within a year of enrollment.

The Michigan Center for Student Success is helping to lead the charge by partnering with consultants and national organizations like Achieving the Dream to deliver structured support for colleges making the transition to corequisite courses and guided self-placement. As the Legislature and the business community consider opportunities to back continued improvements, the emphasis should be on providing investments in the key areas above. This work will require funding, sustained effort and time.

Seeing this reform through will create economic opportunities for Michiganders while also building a modern workforce. When we tell someone to reconnect to a community to improve their career prospects—and better their life—we must ensure that our colleges are ready to make good on that promise.

Jenny Schanker, Michigan Center for Student Success

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