Black Men and Remedial Education

Hoping to save developmental programs from chopping block, academics argue that they particularly help African American males get to graduation.
March 31, 2009

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. -- As budgets thin, many public universities around the country have begun outsourcing remedial education to community colleges. Some scholars, however, maintain that these developmental programs should remain at four-year institutions. In particular, they argue that on-campus preparatory courses help boost the academic success of black male students, an often hard-to-reach population.

At this week’s meeting of the American College Personnel Association, which represents student affairs administrators, three academics defended the role of remedial education at four-year institutions. They based most of their comments and suggestions on a recent study analyzing the effect of a particular developmental program on the retention and persistence of black male students at a historically black institution.

Ivan L. Harrell II, coordinator of student affairs at Virginia's J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College, said that black men remain a severely underrepresented and underserved population in higher education. He noted that, in 2002, only 4.3 percent of all students enrolled in college nationally were black men -- the same percentage as in 1976 -- a result he attributed in part to the fact black men are disproportionately subject to disciplinary action in high school and discouraged from going on to college.

Those roadblocks make black men more likely to enroll in remedial courses than students from other backgrounds, and more likely to be affected as more and more institutions consider eliminating such programs because of their cost or perceived lack of effectiveness.

Harrell pointed out, for example, that at least 22 states have either “reduced or eliminated” remedial coursework from their public, four-year institutions -- including some historically black colleges and universities. He believes many colleges and universities have made this move based on public perception.

“Some of our institutions are trying to change their prestige,” Harrell said. “They say, ‘If we’re trying to become a more prestigious institution, why would we offer remedial education?’ ”

Though he works at a community college, Harrell said four-year institutions that make their students attend two-year institutions first for remediation can lose many in the process.

“There’s still a stigma attached to it,” Harrell said of students attending outsourced remedial courses at two-year institutions. “It is only made worse when community colleges are thought of as only places for remedial education, which is certainly not the case.”

Robert T. Palmer, professor in the department of student affairs at the State University of New York at Binghamton, presented a study he conducted on a remedial education program at a public, doctoral research HBCU (whose name was withheld). He followed 11 black men from the time they entered into a summer remedial program before their freshman year through graduation, and conducted in-depth interviews with them throughout.

Some of the students in Palmer’s study expressed a reluctance to participate in the remedial program, citing the stigma Harrell addressed. Palmer, however, noted that these students soon warmed to the idea when they viewed this as a “second opportunity to earn a college degree.”

“[The university’s remedial program] gave me a chance to prove [to] myself that I’m worthy of a position here at [the university], because even though I had low test scores, I could still prove to them I could do the work,” said one student in Palmer’s study. “I’m just a bad tester.”

The students in Palmer’s study not only viewed the remedial program as punching their proverbial ticket to college; they also stated that they gained some significant academic preparation from the coursework. Palmer noted that remedial programs that admit a single cohort together -- unlike scattering students among courses at a community college -- give students an opportunity to build “a viable social network of peers,” a tool he argued is vital to success.

“I forged supportive and encouraging relationships,” another student in Palmer’s study said of his remedial program. “I’m very appreciative of my best friends. They have encouraged me through those tough times when I wanted to just drop out.”

Though Palmer acknowledged that his study was more qualitative than quantitative, taking note of its small and limited sample size, he said he believes it complements other studies that suggest remedial education enhances “social and academic integration” and opens the way to higher education for minority students. He noted that he believed studies of remedial programs outside of HBCUs -- including those at predominantly white institutions -- would still provide proof that they offer substantive support for black men.

“That’s the beauty of qualitative research,” Palmer said. “You can get at how these programs are helping African American men in ways that data sometimes cannot show.”

While Palmer argued that all remedial programs should be maintained at four-year institutions, he did offer suggestions for places where remediation seems to have a precarious foothold. In those states where remedial education is on the chopping block, Palmer argued that there need to be “varied measures of assessment” to track successes and failures of programs, to see where they can be improved. If such programs are dropped, he further argued for stronger partnerships between public secondary and postsecondary education systems to ensure that students are properly prepared for college work before graduation.

“While the number of African American male students enrolling in college is considerably lower than their counterparts, the continued elimination of developmental education would only exacerbate this trend,” Palmer said.


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