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Placement Realities

Louisiana tried to tighten admissions standards by shifting remediation to community colleges. But when enrollment dropped at four-year universities, without increasing at two-year institutions, the state shifted course.

August 4, 2015
 

Admissions and placement in Louisiana's universities and colleges are somewhat of a work in progress. 

For the past few years the state's universities have been working on finding the best pathway for freshmen who require remediation, while also trying to ensure that students will be successful at the four-year institution of their choice. Yet the road to making those two things happen has been difficult as the state works to create a better transfer system from a relatively new community college system as well as making sure they aren't blocking higher education opportunities for struggling students. At the same time they're also working to lessen the effect these changes have had on enrollment at some of the institutions, particularly the historically black colleges, which pride themselves on serving low-income students.

Revamping admissions and placement in Louisiana really took off in 2010 when the state enacted the Grad Act. The legislation established cut scores based on ACT benchmarks to determine whether students should be placed in remedial or developmental courses at the state's colleges and universities. At the same time, the legislation worked to phase out remedial education at the four-year institutions and push students needing those courses in English or math to Louisiana's community and technical colleges. 

"All of us really wanted to make sure that students who attend universities can be successful. Just simply admitting someone is an abdication of our responsibility to make sure they are successful," said Joseph Rallo, the Louisiana's Board of Regents commissioner of higher education. "The idea was to create more rigor and create a defining line between the four-years and the community colleges." 

The plan went into effect for the statewide institutions (University of Louisiana at Lafayette, University of New Orleans and Louisiana Tech University) in 2012 and the regional universities in 2014. The state's flagship -- Louisiana State University -- already didn't provide developmental courses because of high admission standards. Using ACT scores, the plan barred students who scored less than 18 in English or 19 in math from enrolling in four-year institutions without a waiver. Instead, they must pass a remedial course at a local two-year college. Students could bypass the ACT exam by submitting COMPASS Writing or Algebra exam results. COMPASS is administered by ACT as well, but is a different exam. The universities could also set their own higher standards. 

Some of the institutions had low graduation rates, which played a part in establishing these admission standards and revamping remediation. For instance, Grambling State University's 2014 graduation rate stood at 30 percent, Southern University at New Orleans at 12 percent and Louisiana State University at Alexandria at 21 percent. Although Rallo said completion rates tend to be higher than the federally defined graduation rates, because graduation rates only account for first-time freshmen and more than half of the university populations don't fill that category. The rate at Grambling accounts for 60 percent of students, 38 percent at Southern and 55 percent at LSU-A, according to National Center for Education Statistics.

But performance, graduation rates and completion rates were an impetus in installing the newer minimum requirements, said Karen Denby, the associate commissioner for academic affairs for the Regents. 

ACT has its own benchmarks to determine the college readiness of students. For example, the ACT establishes an 18 in English and a 22 in math as evidence that a student has a 50 percent chance of obtaining a B or higher in a college, credit-bearing course. But the state's Board of Regents worked with ACT to develop the benchmarks used in Louisiana by matching tens of thousands of grades with the ACT subscores, Denby said. Although the math score adopted in the state is below what ACT says is needed to succeed in college. 

In 2014, according to ACT, 56 percent of the state's high school graduates met the benchmark for English, while 9 percent fell within two points. In math, 27 percent met the ACT benchmark while 9 percent fell within two points. 

"We felt in hindsight the concept was good," said Sandra Woodley, president of the University of Louisiana System. "Having tiered standards and setting up the situation where most of remedial, if not all of the remedial is done at the two-year colleges for a lower cost to students and they would then transfer to the four-years." 

But officials were quick to learn that using one exam test score to place students for remediation in community colleges may not have been the best option for students or for the enrollments at some institution.

Finding the Students

"We found in the last few years a lot of students who met the admission standards were regional, but needed one remedial class and they needed to go to the community college," Rallo said. "But they didn't want to go to the community college and instead of going they just decided not to go at all." 

Rallo said they can't pinpoint the number of students who declined college altogether or chose to go out-of-state because of the new requirements. 

"Admissions isn't an exact science," he said. "Everyone is trying to come to grips with the best way a student can be successful, but it's not an exact science. We collect data and this group of students we couldn't assess, because they were never admitted."

In theory, those students should have accounted for an increase in enrollment at the community colleges. But the two-year institutions never saw a significant increase in high school graduates enrolling in their ranks last fall, when the new admissions policy would have affected the entire system for the first time. In fact, enrollment of high school graduates attending the two-year institutions remained stable. According to the community college system, 19,000 or 18 percent of students enrolled were high school graduates or dual-enrolled last school year. The system enrolled 101,000 credit-earning students total, not including adult education or workforce training learners. 

"We have not seen a tremendous number of new students who are 18-year-old high school graduates," said Monty Sullivan, president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System. "But we've had tremendous enrollment increases at the 26-, 27-, 28-year-old age range." 

With only about 40,000 high school graduates across the state, there aren't many people from that pool entering the community colleges, Sullivan said. 

And yet some university officials believe that the placement polices did have an impact on their enrollments. 

Take for instance Southern University and A&M College in Baton Rouge. In 2013-14, prior to the admissions change made under the Grad Act, the number of first-time, entering freshmen was 1,111. That figure decreased to 942 by Fall 2014. System-wide there was a decrease in first-time freshmen. Nearly 300 fewer students this past fall compared to 2,159 a year earlier, according to statewide reports. 

"The pool of students eligible to attend our institutions began to shrink and in some respects we began to question whether or not our institutions designated as [historically black colleges and universities] were failing our mission," said Ray Belton, president-chancellor of the Southern University System. "We have a commitment to provide education opportunity to all Americans, but more particularly to African-Americans. Historically that meant taking a student where they are and providing for them a quality educational experience that shapes them in a way that is successful upon graduation." 

In many ways the strict standards, which limited the number of students needing remediation, limited the HBCUs, in particular, from fulfilling that mission.

"There should be mechanisms or methodology that allows us to move closer to our mission with provision that we have those support services to host students," Belton said. 

Woodley, the U of L System president, said some administrators learned that the best avenue for delivering remediation to students may have been the institutions that had been doing it for years and not the two-year colleges which have been focused on technical educations and workforce development. 

Unlike California or New York, Louisiana's community college system has only been around for about 10 years, Rallo said. The system was established in 1999, although there were some community college campuses in place before then.

The admission policies were set up under the false assumption that the community colleges already had a thriving transfer system and general education courses to guide these students into the four-year institutions upon completion, Woodley said, adding that the college and university officials are working to build that system. 

In fact, transfer from two-years to four-year institutions in the state is low. Woodley points to the transfer rate between University of New Orleans and the nearby Delgado Community College, which stands at less than 2 percent of those who earn the minimum credits required.

New Policies and Pilots

In the few years since the revised remediation and admissions policy began, the state and its colleges have started initiatives to make sure that the universities and colleges weren't losing potential students altogether and that they were working to make sure they succeeded at the four-year level. 

"You can't just look at one cut score on one Saturday on one test," Woodley said. "We have so many examples of students who are in or around that gray area that if they want a four year degree they have a better chance of completing if they start at the four-year instead of the two-year." 

In essence, the system was creating an "undermatching" phenomenon for some students, where an "arbitrary" cut score is labeling thousands of students as remedial, when in essence they have the ability to be successful at a four-year, Woodley said. 

In 2013, the Board of Regents established a pilot program that allowed a student within a couple of points of meeting the benchmark for remediation to enroll in a corequisite college-level math or English course with a matching developmental course that provided "just-in-time" instructional support, Denby said. The pilot courses were offered by community colleges and the regional universities and eligible students could be admitted to the regional institution. 

"[This fall] participation in the pilot was extended to every institution that wished to participate in the corequisite program," Denby said, adding that only two universities have opted-out of the pilot -- Louisiana State University and University of Louisiana at Lafayette. "When I talked to the presidents [at LSU and University of Louisiana at Lafayette] they expressed that they had a strong entry, freshman class without needing the pilot." 

The corequisite reform approach has been catching steam across the country as a popular and successful form of remediation. According to Complete College America, a nonprofit group that works to increase the number of quality college degrees, Tennessee students -- regardless of ACT score -- enrolled in a corequsite English or math course performed better than those in a basic remedial course. 

Another change created to establish better transfer pathway between the two-year and four-year institutions was the creation of "Bridge Programs." 

Under the 2014 admissions policy, some universities partnered with community colleges to develop "Bridge Programs" so selected community college students could participate, and sometimes live, on the university campus while being two-year students, Denby said, adding that their community college courses could be offered at both the college and university campuses. 

One such program exists between Louisiana State University of Alexandria and its two-year counterpart Louisiana State University-Eunice. Students in the bridge program can transfer from Eunice with a minimum 12 college credits to LSUA instead of needing 18 credits. 

The Southern University System, which has its own two-year college -- Southern University at Shreveport -- also created a new transfer program called SU Connect, which guides students on a transfer pathway to the four-year institutions if the students fail to meet the admission requirements for Southern Baton Rouge or New Orleans. 

"After one year under the 2014 no-developmental admission standards, the statewide minimum standards were revised this summer to allow regional universities to return to the one-developmental course provision," Denby said. 

Recognizing the historical role the HBCUs play in helping underserved students, Southern and Grambling State University were allowed to host their own remedial courses, but the local community colleges will provide the remedial instruction for other regional universities, she said. 

"All of this is to develop the best placement policy we can have," Denby said. "If it's true a student who is almost ready for college work can succeed with corequisite courses then we need to change the placement policy so students can progress straight on." 

Rallo agrees and feels the days of universities pointing out proudly that few students can survive their courses have long past. 

"Universities took great pride in how many students would not be able to complete," he said. "High school education was a guarantee and now the community college level is what high school used to be. You need higher and higher level credentials and that's how we have to approach this." 

 

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