Depending on whom you ask, a remedial education fix on the table in Connecticut is either appropriately bold or a ham-handed flop in the making.
What’s certain is that the legislative proposal  to end separate remedial classes at public colleges – all of them – is the first such policy experiment of its kind. Some colleges around the nation have embedded remedial education in conventional, credit-bearing classes, and done so with successful results in selected courses, generally assisted by grants. But no state has previously sought to completely abolish remedial classes, observers said.
The bill in Connecticut, which the General Assembly’s higher education committee passed last month, would require the state’s public institutions to eliminate non-credit stand-alone remedial classes by the fall of 2014. Under the policy, students who need remedial (or developmental) coursework would be placed into entry-level, credit-bearing courses and receive “embedded remedial support.” They would also be required to take an “intensive college readiness program” before the semester’s start. Currently an estimated 70 percent of students at the state’s 12 community colleges take at least one remedial class during their first year of enrollment.
There are indications that lawmakers may backpedal on the legislation, adding flexibility that would make it more palatable to critics. A community college leader said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Beth Bye, planned to introduce changes this week that would allow colleges to offer one level of remedial courses, give faculty oversight of any resulting curricular changes and push the deadline back to 2016. But even if such adjustments are made, many students who would have placed into remedial education will instead enroll directly in college-level courses.
“There are going to be some significant changes to the legislation,” said Gena Glickman, president of Manchester Community College. “They’re reworking it.”
The bill has drawn national attention because of its novel approach to dealing with what is widely seen as a primary obstacle to improving graduation rates. Students typically pay tuition for remedial courses that do not come with credit. Even worse, only one in four students in remedial classes will eventually earn a degree from a community college or transfer to a four-year college.
Connecticut’s public institutions serve a large number of students who place into remedial courses, thanks in part to the strength of private colleges in New England, which attract many of the best-prepared students. And remedial courses are a common stumbling block at the state's community colleges, which collectively have a four-year graduation rate of 13 percent. The six-year graduation rates at Connecticut State range from about 43 percent to 48 percent.
The all-inclusive scope of the initial bill worries some experts. Others, such as Complete College America, have praised  the legislation.
Hunter Boylan, director of the National Center for Developmental Learning, said there are at least four models of embedded remedial education that show promise. For example, he cites a program  in Washington state, dubbed Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training, that pairs workforce training with adult basic education and literacy courses. But that smattering of pilot programs, which includes increased student support services, are not imposed on all of the state’s colleges.
Embedded remedial courses need more “field testing,” Boylan said. “I don’t think it’s been thoroughly researched enough for an entire state to put it into practice.”
Some faculty members at community colleges have echoed Boylan’s concern. Thomas Hodgkin, an English professor at Northwest Community College, told The Hartford Courant  that low-performing students might not be ready for college-level courses even after two semesters of remedial work. “The legislators and Board of Regents are a little naïve about what students are actually capable of doing,” Hodgkin said.
The legislation is the latest move by Connecticut lawmakers to push for statewide coordination in public higher education. The General Assembly, with prodding from the state’s Democratic governor, Dannel P. Malloy, last year created the new Board of Regents for Higher Education, merging the system offices  of Connecticut State’s four universities with the community colleges and Charter Oak State College, an online institution.
To use the parlance of higher education reformers, the merger allows for innovation that can be “scaled up,” like the statewide abolishment of remedial courses.
Michael P. Meotti, executive vice president of the Board of Regents, said the board’s leadership was initially supportive of the legislation, pending its further reworking. He acknowledged that the first draft was a “bit prescriptive,” but said remedial education is broken in the state, an argument few challenge, and requires a serious overhaul.
“Experiment is what we should be doing,” said Meotti.
Lawmakers have pushed colleges to show improvement on remedial completion rates for at least a decade, Meotti said, but higher education leaders have generally been able to talk their way out of legislative interference. Not anymore, apparently.
“They wouldn’t be prescriptive on a trivial issue,” he said. “This is a status quo that isn’t working.”
Research from the Community College Research Center contributed to the bill’s creation, Meotti said. Two new studies  found that commonly used standardized placement tests have been shunting too many students into remedial classes. More than a quarter of those students could have passed college-level coursework, according to the research.
The legislation appears to call for a broader assessment of whether students need remedial work, citing the “use of multiple commonly accepted measures of skill level.”
Eastern Connecticut State University has been particularly innovative in its approach to remediation, several observers said. The legislation will likely spur other colleges to draw from Eastern Connecticut’s playbook.
Whatever the final product of the debate in Connecticut, it’s a safe bet that embedded remedial classes and intensive college readiness programs will require some new money. That could be a problem in a state hit hard by the recession.
Currently, community colleges spend $7 million a year on remedial education, Meotti said. A good chunk of that money would be freed up for the new approach. But more will be needed.
“We recognize that there will have to be resources to do this with the potential for success,” he said.
Glickman, who this week met with lawmakers to talk about the bill, praised them for listening to faculty members. She said she’s now confident that what first looked like blunt, problematic legislation will become workable. Of course, Glickman and others at the state’s community colleges would prefer to do it their own way.
“No one likes to see legislation on these things,” said Glickman. “We like to think we can solve the problems.”
The debate, however, has brought needed focus to the problem of remedial education, she said. Colleges in Connecticut will be working hard on solutions, if they weren’t already.
“They got our attention,” Glickman said.