When remedial education programs are evaluated, a frequent measure is course completion -- what percentage of students successfully complete various remedial courses. But what if the most significant failures are happening outside the classroom? That's exactly what is happening, according to a new analysis of remedial education at community colleges, which finds that the institutions are losing students before they even start, and that completing individual courses -- while obviously important -- may not be the key factor in the effectiveness of remedial programs.
In fact, while the study finds that the majority of people who enroll in a community college remedial course pass the course, that truth may obscure the very real problems in getting students through the remedial courses they may need to do college level work. For example:
- Only between 3 and 4 of every 10 students referred to a remedial education sequence to prepare for college-level work actually complete the sequence.
- Most students who don't complete the sequence abandon it early on -- with almost half failing to complete the first course in a sequence.
- More students exit a remedial sequence they have been urged to take by failing to enroll in the very first course, than by actually failing a course in which they are enrolled.
- Of students who are identified as three or more levels below college-level work, more than 40 percent never enroll in the first course.
- For many students who don't complete that first course, their college education is effectively over and they tend not to return (at least in the three-year period studied by the researchers).
- While these trends are not unique to any demographic group, they are most prevalent among students who are black or male or older or are enrolled part time.
"As it stands now, developmental education sequences must appear confusing, intimidating, and boring to many students entering community colleges," says the report, "Referral, Enrollment and Completion in Developmental Education Sequences in Community Colleges."  The study was released by the Community College Research Center of Teachers College, Columbia University. The authors are Thomas Bailey, director of the center; Dong Wood Jeong, who received his Ph.D. at Teachers College; and Sung-Woo Cho, who is working on a Ph.D. there.
The importance of remedial education at community colleges is clear from basic statistics, cited in the study. More than half of community college students enroll in at least one remedial course during their time in college, and 43 percent of first- and second-year students at community colleges took at least one remedial course during the year they were surveyed. The cost of these remedial efforts is estimated to be significantly more than $1 billion annually.
Whether the students succeed in remedial courses has become a top issue for educators and policy groups. The new study was supported by the Lumina Foundation for Education through the Achieving the Dream  program, which aims to help more community college students complete their programs. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which in November announced an unprecedented plan  to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on community colleges, has identified completion as a key goal, with specific reference to the role played by remedial education.
The data in the study are from an Achieving the Dream database with information about 250,000 students from 57 colleges in 7 states. While the study acknowledges that these colleges and their students are not completely representative, a national database was used for comparison purposes, and suggested the study's findings would apply equally to institutions and students outside of the Achieving the Dream program.
The key methodological difference between this study and previous efforts is its focus on sequences rather than individual courses. For many students, the authors note, remedial education isn't a matter of brushing up on a few things forgotten from high school, but is a course of study involving several courses covering important material never mastered by the student. Students with significant need in remedial mathematics (a common issue for new community college students) may need to take and pass courses in pre-collegiate arithmetic, basic algebra and intermediate algebra before being able to enroll in a college-level mathematics course.
The study defines sequence as including not only the courses but the system by which remedial needs are identified and students are guided into their first course and from course to course.
The authors make several related recommendations based on their findings. First, they say that college leaders wanting to improve the odds for remedial courses need to focus not just on the classroom, but on what happens in between courses.
In particular, the authors urge colleges to focus on what happens before and after the placement process in which students are identified as needing remedial instruction. Colleges need to make "a major effort to counsel and guide students perhaps even before their initial assessment," the report says. And for those who make it into the first course, the report says, "contextualized developmental courses that quickly connect remedial instruction to a student’s occupational interests also seem promising." In some cases, to show students the value of program completion, "a college might offer students an opportunity to take appropriately designed occupational courses before subjecting them to remedial instruction," the report says.
Other ideas proposed would change the way remedial education is organized and delivered. "Perhaps colleges should combine two or three levels of instruction into one longer, more intensive course," the study says. "At the very least, concerted efforts should be made to encourage students who complete one course in their sequence to go on to the next. This might involve abandoning the semester schedule to prevent gaps between courses, or registering and scheduling students for the next course in a sequence while they are still in the previous course."
The bottom line, the authors write, is that minor adjustments won't do the trick: "Given these low completion rates, community colleges in general need to consider fundamental changes in their approaches to remediation -- modest improvements will not solve much of the problem."