Low success rates and high costs are driving more states and institutions to seek new ways to offer developmental or remedial college courses.
Minnesota recently became the latest state in which legislators are making an effort to retain and boost completion rates among less academically prepared college students. They're considering a proposal to give students who test into remediation the option to avoid taking a remedial class or to take a regular, credit-bearing course with tutoring or extra support -- an approach known as “corequisite remediation.”
“There's no question there is a movement afoot across the country to implement corequisite remediation and to do it to scale,” said Bruce Vandal, vice president of Complete College America, which receives most of its funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and is a proponent of corequisite remediation.
But Vandal cautioned that his group isn't recommending the elimination of remediation altogether or throwing students into the deep end to see them fail.
“Research tells us it doesn't have to be an either-or proposition,” he said. “We can still support students who aren't optimally prepared.” But the best option is for them to take college-level courses, he added.
There are different approaches to remedial reform, but not enough research has taken place to definitively say what works and what doesn't, said Hunter Boylan, director of the National Center for Developmental Education at Appalachian State University.
“What I find interesting is that I've never seen, in my 30 years in higher education, such sweeping change made on the basis of so little evidence,” said Boylan, who is leery of Complete College America's research.
Although many of the reforms are being labeled as new, Boylan said, the traditional remedial model also involves integrating course work with support services. Unfortunately, most colleges use stand-alone remedial classes without support services, and part-time faculty teach the classes.
The limited evidence that exists shows there are community colleges that have seen some improvements using the corequisite model, Boylan said.
More states are following suit. Nevada is considering a state policy on reforming remediation, and officials in Montana are talking about doing the same, Vandal said.
Tennessee's Legislature required community colleges to use corequisite remediation and have encouraged the four-year institutions to do the same.
“Even students scoring the lowest level on the ACT -- a 12 subscore in math and a 12 in English, which is extremely low -- those students are far more successful in the corequisite model than in the old remedial model,” Vandal said, of Tennessee's policy.
Indiana's community college system began offering corequisite remediation in math this past spring and will add English next year, he said.
“The results they are seeing have been nothing short of remarkable,” Vandal said.
Colorado, West Virginia and Connecticut all have enacted some form of remedial reform. Georgia made a commitment to adopt corequisite remediation for all remedial students in the University System of Georgia this fall, Vandal said.
However, Boylan said some of the promising results from those reforms may be deceiving. That's because he said there is a chance that 5 to 20 percent of students who place in remediation would do well in traditional college classes.
“My concern is that many of these alleged innovations have been around for a while and to a certain extent withstood the test of time in that they will improve student performance. But we have to ask the question of performance for who,” he said. “Who is going to be among the 5 to 10 percent of students who complete college math more often? I suspect that's going to be white, middle-class students who were underplaced in the first place. These reforms may bring more change because they're putting more people in college-level courses. So you should expect to get more people completing them and more people failing.”
New Approaches in Minnesota
In Minnesota, 28 percent of high school graduates enrolled in a developmental course within two years, according to the state's Office of Higher Education. The majority of those remedial students -- 85 percent -- attended a public two-year college.
The state is trying to identify these students early in high school, long before they reach college, said Meredith Fergus, manager of financial aid research for the statewide office.
Part of the reason the state is looking to make changes is because developmental courses can be costly.
For instance, in 2014, 21 percent of two-year college students in Minnesota took an average of 5.9 credits of developmental education courses, which cost a total of $1,052 in tuition, said Pakou Yang, interim system director of P-20 and college readiness for Minnesota State Colleges and Universities. Developmental courses also don't offer credit toward a degree.
At the state's four-year institutions, for the same year, 5 percent of students took on average the equivalent of 3.7 credits of developmental classes, for a total cost of $932, she said.
Completion rates also were lower among students who started their college careers in developmental courses, but higher than the national averages offered by Complete Completion America. Minnesota defines success as the number of students retained, or who transfer or graduate. So in 2011, 54.6 percent of Minnesota's two-year-college students who took a developmental education course completed after three years, while that number increases to 66.1 percent if they didn't take developmental education, Yang said.
Those rates are also lower for Minnesota students at four-year colleges. In 2008, 79.8 percent of students who took a developmental education course completed after six years compared to 85 percent who didn't take one of those courses.
But still, there are concerns about moving away from the traditional remedial model.
“How we understand a corequisite model is that most of the time it serves students closer to college level, whether they're nontraditional or traditional. Where we have concerns is that a corequisite [approach] might not serve students who are the most vulnerable or the most needy,” Yang said. “It doesn't allow us to address the diversity of students that come to us with different levels of academic preparedness… what might work for one student might not work for others.”
There also seems to be a lack of discussion on how the reforms would help Minnesota students who primarily speak a language other than English.
“There is a high correlation between language skills and developmental education,” Fergus said. “Minnesota has large Somali, Hmong and Spanish-speaking populations. Somali students also have high college enrollment. I'm not sure K-12 can fix the language side, and I'm not sure language is what they're thinking about when we talk about corequisite modeling.”
Much of the focus also seems geared toward high school students. There are concerns that anytime there is talk of reforming remediation, the focus is strictly on high school graduates, when there are nontraditional or adult students who enroll in developmental education courses too, Fergus said.
As Minnesota decides whether or not to undertake reforming remedial programs, researchers in Florida are evaluating whether the reforms in that state are working best for students -- and which ones.
“I don't know any state that says no to remediation at all. Florida comes the closest,” Complete College America's Vandal said.
Florida remains an outlier among states by experimenting with multiple remedial reforms at its 28 state colleges. In 2014, colleges were mandated not to use placement exams to determine whether a student should be placed in developmental courses. Instead colleges have to tailor their offerings to a student's needs and give students the option of whether or not they wish to take a developmental course, which is offered in a number of different approaches beyond corequisite remediation.
Most Florida colleges have chosen modularization, which divides a traditional developmental course into learning modules that are customized to meet a student's particular needs, and compression, where remedial classes are shortened and can be completed in less time, said Shouping Hu, a professor of higher education and director of the Center for Postsecondary Success at Florida State University.
Hu and his team have been studying Florida's restructuring of developmental education through college site visits, student surveys and record data analysis. Far fewer colleges are using the corequisite approach and even fewer the contextualization approach, where basic skills are integrated in college courses, he said.
“Florida is a very special case in terms of developmental education reform. So our team is still figuring out and doing the research to evaluate the impact of reform on student success,” Hu said.
There are also those students whom Hu and his team have surveyed who were advised to take a developmental education course, but chose not to do so.
“Most students take it because, one, they know they need it, and second, an adviser advises them to take it,” he said. “Then there are students who choose to not take developmental education courses. Sometimes it depends on the subject area. If it's math, students may follow the advice more closely. But if it's reading or writing, students may choose not to enroll in developmental education course.”
With only one year of the study, Hu said they're unable to tell with certainty if those decisions were good or bad.
Meanwhile, the Minnesota Senate and House have passed remedial legislation in higher education bills that now sit in conference committee so differences can be ironed out. Some officials are hopeful the conversation doesn't turn into a blame game between higher education and K-12.
“The differing models, whether the traditional or corequisite, is an opportunity to figure out what works best for students,” Fergus said. “Higher education and K-12 should see it as an opportunity to partner rather than blaming one another.”
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