A growing number of states have begun to require community colleges to allow more students with academic deficiencies to skip remediation and enroll directly in college-level courses. New research shows this approach can work, particularly if those students receive additional academic support.
The City University of New York System recently conducted a study comparing how students performed in traditional remedial mathematics, which is elementary algebra, versus college-level, credit-bearing introductory statistics.
Alexandra W. Logue, the system’s chief academic officer, said CUNY spends many millions of dollars a year on remediation. Yet the system had not adequately studied how its remedial pathways were structured. “How do you know this this is the best way to do remediation?” Logue said she and others began asking a few years ago. “People had no answer.”
So CUNY designed a research project to track how 717 students with remedial needs progressed through three different math courses. One group of students took the noncredit remedial algebra course. Another took the same course but also participated in an additional weekly workshop. The third group took introductory statistics with a weekly workshop.
The statistics course had the highest pass rate, at 56 percent. The remedial course with the workshop was next with a 45 percent pass rate. That same course minus the workshop came in at 39 percent.
Logue co-authored the study with Mari Watanabe-Rose, a senior research associate at the system’s central office. They were surprised that students in the statistics group did better than those in remedial algebra with extra support. The two researchers had hoped for roughly equal results for those two groups.
The study used a randomized, controlled trial, which is the labor-intensive “gold standard” in research, said Logue, an experimental psychologist who will step down from her CAO post next month. CUNY paid for a pilot version of the study, and later received funding for a full study from the Spencer Foundation.
Several community colleges around the country have begun offering statistics rather than algebra to students in non-STEM tracks. The idea, which is controversial, is that statistics is more practical and less likely to trip up large numbers of students.
Nikki Edgecombe is a senior research associate with the Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Columbia University’s Teachers College. She calls statistics a “much more functional and pragmatic mathematics training” given most students’ career paths, where a familiarity with statistical analysis is more likely to be necessary than writing out quadratic equations.
Some mathematicians, however, say algebra is a crucial part of a college curriculum. And Logue said there has been debate among CUNY’s math department chairs about going the statistics route.
The plan for the study is to continue to follow students through their time at CUNY. If those who went through statistics fare as well as their peers who took algebra, Logue said that result would assuage some worries about nixing elementary algebra.
CUNY, which got the final results from the trial this spring, will be using the findings to experiment with different curricular approaches to remediation in the near future.
“This is going to be an evolution,” said Logue.
The new research builds on the highly publicized findings from two CCRC studies from 2012, which found that many students who placed into remediation could succeed in college-level courses.
Edgecombe said the CUNY study “speaks to the likelihood of placement error” in remediation. She praised the system for researching the issue, which few beyond CCRC have done.
“This is huge,” she said. “Colleges need to be doing this type of research for themselves.”
Complete College America, a nonprofit group that receives funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has been successful in pushing states to place fewer students into noncredit remedial courses. The CUNY study's findings appear to back that approach.
“The movement’s already there,” said Bruce Vandal, vice president of Complete College America. “This is just going to add more fuel to it.”
Vandal said he was encouraged to see how well students performed in the study’s college-level course.
“Getting through the gateway course is a critical measure of success,” he said.
Students in the study’s statistics group received the extra help of workshops, which cost money to run. And states like Connecticut and Florida, both of which have mandated that community colleges rely less on noncredit remedial courses, have not ponied up the state funding for such additional academic supports.
However, Logue said replacing remediation with college-level courses that use workshops likely would be a more efficient investment for state and local governments.
Remedial courses are a black hole for students, few of whom successfully complete remediation or earn degrees. Logue said the higher pass rates found in the study suggest that additional supports would lead to a lower overall cost per credential produced. But colleges might lose some money by having to cover the costs of workshops, which students don’t pay for at CUNY.
For students, however, the benefits of credit-bearing plus workshop are clear, according to the study. They can progress more quickly to a degree while also avoiding the stigma of being placed into remediation.