Complex Problem, Complex Solution

June 19, 2014

Colorado’s public colleges are taking on the problem of low success rates in remedial education from multiple angles, with encouragement from state government. And the early returns look good.

More students are completing remedial courses, according to an annual progress report the state requires its community colleges and public four-year institutions to produce. Colorado’s statewide remedial course completion rate climbed last year to 62 percent from 59 percent the previous year.

At community colleges, students enrolled in remediation for the first time had higher initial retention rates than their peers in college-level courses. About 58 percent of community college students with remedial needs returned for their second year, compared to 55 percent of the general population.

The report, which came out last month, also found that more Colorado high school graduates are ready for college, with 37 percent (8,300) placing into a remedial course compared to 40 percent the prior year. That progress is due in part to the state’s attempt to take developmental education into K-12 and to build upon its extensive dual-enrollment programs, where high school students can earn college credit.

“It’s a coordinated effort where we’re trying several different things,” said Colorado Lt. Governor Joseph Garcia. “You really have to have a multipronged approach.”

Garcia has taken a leadership role in the state’s remedial reforms, with the strong backing of Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat. Garcia has higher education bona fides, having been president of Colorado State University at Pueblo and of Pikes Peak Community College. He’s also a former board member of a regional accrediting agency and serves as vice chair of the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education.

Colorado has long been one of the stingiest states when it comes to funding higher education, with a public system that is as privatized as any in the nation. But state government has managed to push for improvements on remediation without stepping on too many toes.

Even so, the work has been difficult and slow going, Garcia acknowledged.

For example, the state’s community colleges have worked to boil down three semesters of remedial coursework into just one. It’s a labor-intensive job. But the end result will mean students can complete remedial work and “gateway” courses in math and English in just one year.

“We had to get everybody to buy into it,” said Garcia. “We didn’t force anybody to do this.”

But reforms like the shortening of the remedial cycle are worthwhile, he said. And they’re working.

“That saves the student time and money. And that saves the state money,” Garcia said

On the Cusp

Remedial education is a black hole for most students. In Colorado, fewer than 30 percent of students who place into remedial courses will earn a bachelor’s degree in six years.

Colorado’s Commission on Higher Education has set a goal for two-thirds of the state’s residents between the ages of 25 and 34 to hold a “high quality” college credential. That’s because the state estimates that 74 percent of all jobs will require a college degree by 2020.

But for Colorado to improve its college completion rates, public institutions will need to get more students through remedial courses. So in recent years the governor's office, Legislature, higher education commission and statewide systems have made remediation a priority. And they are getting national attention for those efforts.

In a related move, Colorado last year made a substantial change in how it distributes state-based financial aid. Students now receive more aid when they hit milestones on their way to a credential. Awards are also decreased if students do not graduate on time.

“All the institutions are on notice now,” said Bruce Vandal, vice president of Complete College America, a nonprofit group that has been active in the state. “They need to take their game to the next level.”

The state commission last year adopted a law that allows students at public four-year institutions who have “limited academic deficiencies” to take remedial courses on campus. In the past students were required to first complete remedial coursework at a community college.

Metropolitan State University of Denver was the first institution to try the new approach. Dubbed “Supplemental Academic Instruction,” it lets students with remedial needs take credit-bearing, gateway courses. They also get mandatory academic supports, such as tutoring, peer-study sessions and extra class time.

The university has mostly open-door admissions. About half of traditional-aged students and three-quarters of adult students at the university place into at least one remedial course.

However, most remedial students at Metro State place into the final sequence of remediation.

“They don’t have drastic remedial needs,” said Eric Michael Dunker, director of the university’s extended campus.

Faculty members at the university developed new placement methods aimed at identifying students who are likely to succeed in college-level courses. That included different cutoff scores and the use of additional assessments. Beginning last fall, qualifying students, who previously were shunted to a community college, can now place directly into college-level courses at Metro State.

This program is similar to the “co-requisite” model Complete College America has pushed in other states. It works best when students with remedial needs get extra help.

At Metro State, those students must take supplemental instruction alongside their gateway coursework. That includes a non-credit lab for mathematics and a one-credit English add-on. Students cover some of the costs for those extra supports. For example, they pay a program fee of $90 for the math lab. The university chips in the rest.

While $90 is a substantial cost to lower-income students, it’s a better deal than paying tuition at a community college without receiving credits, which is how remedial courses work.

Roughly 2,000 students have participated in Metro State’s pilot program for remedial math, university officials said. Another 213 were in the English program. The results have been promising. Dunker said students in supplemental academic instruction courses are outperforming their peers and are more likely to complete than they were in the past.

The university plans to ramp up its program in coming years. And several other public institutions around the state are following suit. Five, including the community college system, are authorized to try the supplemental instruction approach.

“We’re going to subsidize this more if we scale this up,” said Dunker.

Starting Early

Colorado requires its public institutions to collect and report a large amount of data on remediation. The resulting report, which the state releases publicly each year, tracks both trends and raw numbers.

Last year Colorado saw the total cost of remediation drop to $56 million from $58.4 million the previous year. Students paid for $37.5 million of that amount (and can use federal financial aid for those courses) while the state paid $18.6 million. The reduced cost was mostly due to fewer students placing into remediation.

One driver of Colorado’s students being more prepared for college, Garcia said, was state-mandated standards for K-12 that are better aligned with college placement requirements. The state has also had success with GEAR UP, a federally funded program that the Clinton administration created. It targets low-income students in middle and high schools, offering intensive advising, dual enrollment and college preparation courses.

Colorado began a GEAR UP pilot project in 2011 that took “early remediation” to two middle schools. It has since expanded to 19 K-12 schools around the state.

Faculty members at Colorado’s Adams State University created online, self-paced courses for the K-12 students. They worked with a customizable version of ALEKS, a personalized mathematics software platform from McGraw-Hill Education.

By next week, 750 students will have completed at least one of the free courses and received a college transcript, said Christina Ingrum, program director for Colorado GEAR UP. The state plans to expand the program.

Vandal said he’s been impressed with the depth of Colorado’s work to tackle remediation in K-12.

“It’s not just that students are prepared for college,” he said. “It’s that they’ve done college.” 

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