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A preliminary report about a City University of New York initiative that provides a semester of intense remedial instruction before students enroll in a degree program determined this method may be key to helping underprepared students overcome significant academic shortcomings.

The report by MDRC, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization, is based on the early findings of an evaluation of the CUNY Start initiative, which involves students taking a semester of intensive remedial math, reading and writing prep courses before they begin college-level work. MDRC, CUNY and the Community College Research Center at Teachers College at Columbia University are studying the benefits of participating in CUNY Start. The program also includes academic advising, tutoring and a weekly college skills-building seminar.

“People believe the biggest stumbling block for community college students is completing remedial classes, especially remedial math,” Michael Weiss, a senior associate at MDRC and co-author of the report, said. “Here you have a program that knocks out the main stumbling block for students.”

The study found that the CUNY Start students made more progress through developmental education in the first semester, especially in math, than their peers who fully matriculated. However, students not enrolled in CUNY Start earned more college credits than the CUNY Start students, who do not earn college credits during the semester in the program.

The study also found that in the second semester, CUNY Start students enrolled in credit-bearing courses at the colleges at a higher rate than their peers who did not participate in the program.

The study examined CUNY Start students at four institutions -- Borough of Manhattan Community College, Kingsborough Community College, LaGuardia Community College and Queensborough Community College -- and measured them alongside students who needed remedial education but enrolled directly in the institutions. Students with remedial needs who did not participate in CUNY Start were placed in a variety of corequisite developmental courses that allowed them to take college-level math and English courses along with additional academic supports.

The CUNY Start program is especially beneficial for students who need help in remedial reading, writing and math, said Donna Linderman, associate vice chancellor for academic affairs within the CUNY Office of Academic Affairs. She said it's often impossible for students to complete three to four remedial courses in one semester while also taking college-credit courses.

In the last few years, corequisite remediation, which places students in college-level English and math courses but pairs those courses with additional support, has been the more popular method of providing remedial education. And multiple studies have shown higher course pass rates in corequisite courses than in traditional remediation. Last year, Texas lawmakers passed a law that requires corequisite remediation be used in developmental education courses.

However, researchers have questioned whether corequisite remediation is the best option for students with significant academic shortcomings.

CUNY is currently undergoing broad remedial education reform, much like other colleges around the country, Linderman said.

“There are some colleges at CUNY very rigorously and robustly implementing corequisite math and English, and we’re targeting those students who just missed the cutoff to be college ready by a fairly modest margin,” she said. “CUNY Start is really for those who have the most significant need. If they matriculated they probably wouldn't go into a corequisite course, but there are so many different pathways through remediation.”

Researchers say colleges have not reached a point where they can target which remedial reform works best for individual students.

Maria Scott Cormier, a senior research associate at the Community College Research Center who co-authored the report, said they’re still figuring out how programs such as CUNY Start fit with all the other remedial initiatives taking place at colleges around the country.

“The field hasn’t come to a consensus, but with the early findings from CUNY Start, we’re starting to get a sense of what students with more remedial needs need,” she said. “Compared to a lot of other developmental reforms, it's comprehensive in its approach.”

Most developmental reforms focus on structural changes, such as altering the amount of time students spend in a lab, and not on the teaching, learning, curriculum, advising and staff training that is targeted by CUNY Start, Scott Cormier said.

Although CUNY Start students miss out on earning credits during the semester in the program, the expectation is that they will be better prepared for college-level courses when they complete the program and will ultimately finish college sooner because they’re completing remedial education faster and getting it out of the way at the start of their college years, Cormier said. These students will also save money, because any financial aid for which they are eligible is reserved for when they start taking credit-bearing courses. They pay just $75 to participate in CUNY Start.

“They’re doing this at the expense of not taking college-level classes, so of course they’re behind,” said Weiss, the MDRC researcher, who also noted that the CUNY Start students will be better prepared for college. “The big unanswered question is what happens when times goes on.”

Another report on the impact of CUNY Start is scheduled to be released next year, followed by a full three-year report in 2020.

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