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If colleges have fewer students in remedial classes, does that mean they need less money for developmental education? In Florida, the Legislature seems to think so, but the leaders of the state's two-year institutions strongly disagree.

Four years ago Florida’s Legislature ended a requirement that traditional high school graduates who failed to score well on the state’s placement test take remedial courses.

The state made those placement tests optional, and subsequently, enrollment in those courses fell. Now, the state is proposing to cut $30 million from developmental education at the state's two-year colleges because of the enrollment decrease.

The cuts to remediation are just one of a few changes Governor Rick Scott may sign into law, including capping the number of bachelor's degree programs offered at Florida’s two-year public colleges. The Legislature would also move toward creating a new, governor-appointed oversight board for the community colleges. The colleges are currently governed by the state’s Board of Education. The system would be renamed the Florida Community College System -- which was the original name for the system before it was changed in 2009.

Since 2014, when Florida lifted the mandate on requiring the least college-ready high school graduates to take developmental education, enrollment in those courses has decreased, although success rates increased. In 2015, for instance, in the most recent data available, enrollment in developmental education courses across the state decreased by 8 percent to 101,561 course enrollments, according to the state. Success rates, however, improved, with the percentage of students earning a C grade or higher increasing from 59 percent in 2014 to 64 percent in 2015.

In college gateway courses -- entry-level classes to particular fields -- enrollment in the same time period increased by 15 percent, from 314,115 to 361,315 enrollments. The success rates in gateway courses also improved, with the percentage of students earning a C or higher rising from 68 to 69 percent.

“Colleges reformed developmental education and built student success in gateway courses by investing in tutors, individualized academic technology and additional academic resources,” Madeline Pumariega, chancellor of the Florida College System, said in a statement.

The previous legislation led the two-year colleges to place less emphasis on traditional remedial courses that are taken before enrolling in credit-bearing classes, and many colleges moved to new approaches to developmental education, like the corequisite model that combines gateway courses with additional academic support like labs or tutoring.

And to bolster those new -- and in some cases more expensive -- forms of education, many of the colleges used the money to create these additional academic supports that the Legislature is now preparing to cut.

Even though traditional remedial courses were cut and enrollments in developmental education decreased, the colleges are still dealing with students who opted in to the college-ready, credit-bearing courses but still need significant academic support, said Edwin Massey, president of Indian River State College.

Indian River created a program called Direct Connect that assigns a tutor to students who choose to opt in to college-credit courses.

“They’re opting out of developmental education, but they’re not opting out of college, so we have to make sure we help them with their success,” Massey said.

Indian River is transitioning this year to a more typical type of corequisite program in which students in the gateway courses would be required to receive tutoring; under the Direct Connect program, the tutoring was optional. But completely making that transition depends on how much funding is available.

Massey said the college will still move to corequisite courses, but it may be delayed depending on the state funding level, as the college goes through its own budget process to see how much can be allocated for tutors.

Tom Sugar, president of Complete College America, a nonprofit organization that advocates for corequisite remediation, said Florida has often been a leader in reforming developmental education and building pathways for students to succeed. But too often, he said, the state also takes legislative actions that lack “precision and foresight.”

“Pending legislation in Florida -- despite a number of student-centered provisions that sharpen the focus on timely completion, college affordability and seamless transfer -- makes destructive cuts, undermining ongoing reform efforts to better serve underprepared students,” Sugar said in an email.

Sugar said the success rates in Florida show that the state should instead be investing in evidence-based student success strategies, including scaling corequisite remediation, instead of completely cutting funds.

“Many more students are taking and passing key college courses in math and English … but the students haven’t changed, it’s just that Florida and others have found better ways to provide help,” said Davis Jenkins, senior research scholar at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College. “And it needs to be funded. If they take that away, they’re going to step back and see a deterioration in the very dramatic gains they’ve achieved.”

Capping Four-Year Degrees

The Legislature is also looking to cap the percentage of students enrolled in four-year degree programs at the state’s two-year colleges. That cap would mean enrollment in bachelor's degree programs couldn't exceed 15 percent of an institution's total student population.

At Indian River, where the nearest university is about two hours away, the campus offers 17 bachelor's degree programs. Massey said the college could hit the 15 percent cap in just a few years.

“Our programs are not competitive with the universities,” he said. “They were work force-based baccalaureate programs to prepare people to get promotions on the jobs they currently have or to get a different higher-wage-paying job with an additional degree.”

The Florida Legislature has allowed its community colleges to offer bachelor's degrees since 2001. In the intervening years, a growing number added more four-year degree programs as a way to address their community's work force needs.

Massey said four-year degrees in nursing and education typically fall into the work force-based category.

“In an area where we do not have a university in our district, these programs have been very important to the adult working population in our community,” he said, adding that about 70 percent of Indian River’s programs are science, technology, engineering or math-based. “We don’t want to get to the point where we have to tell students they can’t get an additional education.”

J. David Armstrong, president of Broward College, in Fort Lauderdale, said some local legislators may have the perception that everyone should go to the University of Florida, but many students want to stay in their local communities, or have cost concerns or family and work responsibilities.

“I don’t have a law school or a medical school, and I don’t want one,” he said. “But if you want to be a nurse, you’re not going to find a place more cost-efficient than Broward.”

Unlike Indian River, Broward isn't in danger of hitting the proposed cap. Only 5 percent of its students are in its 12 bachelor's degree programs. But Armstrong said he still opposes the cap. And Broward's bachelor's degree programs don't compete with nearby Florida International University in Miami and Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, he said.

“Why would you put a cap on good programs trying to give students good careers and prepare a trained work force for business and industry needs?” he said. “Sometimes it’s potentially the for-profit or not-for-profit institutions that see us as a threat to them competitively, but we’re giving students choices and options, and having some competition in the marketplace is a good thing.”

Certificates and associate degrees can give you a bump in the labor market, but across the country, more jobs require bachelor's degrees; more often than not, in order to move up the career ladder a four-year degree is needed, Jenkins said.

“These work force bachelor's degrees are different from the bachelor’s degrees offered by universities,” Jenkins said, adding that it’s important not to duplicate the programs offered at universities.

“Capping these is arbitrary. We need to study them more at the two-year level, but they serve labor-market needs and enroll more disadvantaged, minority, place-bound groups of students … than the regional universities, who I greatly respect. They’re one of the more important innovations in higher education in the last 30 years.”

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