Community colleges

Essay on ways to improve developmental education for students with deep remedial needs

Every week, it seems we read a report or article about the need for the United States to increase the number of students who have degrees or certificates to meet the country’s workforce needs. We in community colleges are doing our part to meet this challenge.

But too often promising practices for helping more students get to graduation fail to reach those who need them most -- the millions who enter college with literacy and numeracy challenges that put them years behind their peers. That has to change. And to do so will require strong collaboration with state policy makers.

Colleges have shown that they can successfully fast-track students who are close to college ready into college-level courses. But what about the many students who are farther behind, who continue to spin their wheels, taking the same developmental course four or five times without advancing to gatekeeper courses in math and English?

Who are these students? Why aren’t they succeeding in developmental education? What do we know about their prior learning and high school experiences? What happens to them after they leave our colleges?

We need robust data disaggregated by student groups to answer these and related questions. Once we have that information, we should focus on how best to engage and empower faculty members to find appropriate solutions. They are best equipped to lead efforts to design interventions that will benefit students with deep developmental needs and to bring those interventions to scale. It is essential to put faculty and staff members at the center of this process and to ensure that they have enhanced professional development opportunities so they can have the greatest impact.

There are numerous examples of programs proven to be effective for students who are close to college ready, including the City University of New York’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs, the Charles A. Dana Center’s New Mathways Project and the Community College of Baltimore County’s Accelerated Learning Program. As emerging research from Redesigning America’s Community Colleges is beginning to demonstrate, accelerated learning programs are also showing promise in helping students who are less prepared for college. But the fact remains that there are few well-researched examples for students who are farthest behind, creating a crucial need for new models and more evidence about what works for these students across multiple academic areas.

Whenever we discuss what works to accelerate developmental education for students with deeper remedial needs, we round up a few usual suspects, such as Washington State’s Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training (I-BEST), which relies on contextualization and team teaching to deliver intensive supports to students whose test scores place them into adult basic education, and the City University of New York’s Start program, where students delay college-level courses to first participate in 15 to 18 weeks of intensive instruction in reading, writing and math.

I-BEST is particularly well researched. Quasi-experimental evaluations of I-BEST students found that they performed better than students not in the program on a range of measures, from number of college credits earned to persistence and earning a credential.

We need to create a more significant R&D effort in this area -- which will have significant payoff for community colleges and their students.

In addition, to ensure that we can scale up innovative efforts and help them take hold, we will have to reimagine how we fund our community colleges, to make it possible to 1) generate additional resources for effective interventions and professional development and 2) direct the most money to the students with the greatest needs, both academically and nonacademically.

State agencies and legislative bodies are understandably reluctant to provide new resources, given the limited results that developmental education has produced. Colleges must demonstrate that they can improve results with increasingly sophisticated developmental education practices, such as those identified in the recently released “Core Principles for Transforming Remediation Within a Comprehensive Student Success Strategy.” This document offers community colleges promising practices to draw upon, from managing intake of students to providing academic support in gatekeeper courses aligned with career interests.

Showing results will energize the conversation about how we, as a nation, invest in our human capital. At the moment, the bulk of public dollars flows to institutions that enroll students who have always enjoyed educational advantages. However, it's lending a strong hand to students without those advantages that will broaden the path to upward mobility. Increasing investment in institutions dedicated to opening their doors to those who have long been denied opportunity isn't optional. It's the only route to a skilled and prosperous workforce and a vibrant democracy.

Equally important, as states mull more investment, they should consider creative options for rewarding colleges for helping the most at-risk students persist. Performance-based funding models can provide colleges incentives for graduation, and institutions can develop strategies to reallocate resources to build the next level of intensive interventions needed for students who are not succeeding under existing models.

As co-chairs of the Policy Leadership Trust for Student Success at Jobs for the Future, home to the Taskforce on Developmental Education, we're fully committed to furthering solutions that change outcomes for students.

We know that the best way for colleges to increase the number of United States citizens holding degrees and credentials is to retain and advance our current students. That starts with creating a robust, multidimensional developmental education system that is student centered -- and persuading state governments to do everything in their power to make it happen.

Reynaldo Garcia is president emeritus of the Texas Association of Community Colleges. Scott Ralls is president of Northern Virginia Community College and previously was president of the North Carolina Community College System. Garcia and Ralls serve as co-chairs of the Policy Leadership Trust for Student Success at Jobs for the Future, which seeks solutions to high-priority policy barriers that block community college students from graduating and earning credentials.

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Essay on state policy solutions to improve student transfer from community colleges to four-year institutions

Tackling Transfer

Increasing numbers of state policy makers are awakening to the difficulty community college students have transferring their credits toward a degree at four-year colleges and universities. They are right to be worried. Research has found that fewer than 60 percent of community college transfer students could transfer most of their credits and 15 percent were able transfer very few and essentially had to start over. The resulting waste of time and money -- not to mention lost human potential -- represents one of the biggest challenges to student success U.S. higher education faces today.

Acknowledging the problem and fixing it, however, are two different things. And attempts to address the issue at the state level, while doing some good, may have unintended negative consequences. The good news is, as some states are starting to show, this can be fixed.

When state policy makers consider how to address the large numbers of credits lost during transfer, they face a conundrum. Premajor requirements for different programs of study vary, and the same major at two different four-year colleges can have different program designs, course requirements and levels of academic rigor. For instance, a bachelor’s degree in psychology at one state university may align with medical school requirements, and thus require more science courses than a psychology program focused on the field more generally.

In the face of this often overwhelming variation in four-year degree requirements, policy makers in some states have put their trust in a common denominator: ensuring transferability of nonmajor lower-division courses, often referred to as the general education core, and leaving the major-specific requirements to each individual four-year institution. In Mississippi, for example, this guarantees transfer to a four-year institution for the community college student who completes 41 credits from a broad array of approved courses. Similar rules exist in Ohio, Texas and several other states.

Sound good? Not so fast.

In states where such rules exist, the gen-ed core at many community colleges has become the default curriculum for the first two or three semesters. On one level, this makes sense. Community college advisers and faculty members reason that counseling students to complete the gen-ed core first will reduce credit loss and preserve students’ options when selecting a four-year transfer destination and a major.

But preserving options may be the enemy of student success. In fact, if pursuing the gen-ed core becomes a reason to delay program choice, it can actually limit students’ options and reduce the chances for degree completion in three important ways.

First, choosing a major or at least a broad field of interest before transferring can help ensure that students take the right gen-ed courses -- courses that will both transfer and count toward their major. For example, many science courses taught at community colleges count toward gen-ed requirements, but only some of those courses are rigorous enough to align to the STEM major tracks at most four-year universities. Similarly, undergraduate psychology programs at four-year colleges increasingly require courses in which students learn research methods, instruction that is often lacking in community college introductory psychology courses. Consequently, community college students seeking to transfer in psychology may not have the foundational research skills of a student who entered a university as a freshman.

Moreover, in many majors, it is essential for students to begin their major-related courses as soon as possible if they are to have any hope of graduating in four years. Science majors need to take a series of rigorous courses with laboratory components that are nearly impossible for a student to handle in their final two years. The same goes for engineering and nursing. Studio art and architecture majors have studio courses that realistically cannot be completed in the junior and senior year. For many majors, programs are thus designed to ensure that students spread demanding major-related courses over more than two years. Delaying program choice prohibits students from doing so. If students don’t take some of these courses early on, they may essentially have to start over when they transfer.

Finally, without a sense of direction, students may struggle to feel connected to their academic course work as they complete their gen-ed courses. When a student interested in accounting can take accounting classes while simultaneously working on English and Math 101, she can better see how these courses add up to an associate degree and then a bachelor’s -- while remaining engaged in her area of interest. Clear direction is an essential counterweight to the many challenges and demands that can pull students away from studying, attending class and, ultimately, completing their degrees.

However, these problems can be resolved. Under pressure from policy makers to better meet the growing need for STEM workers in the state, higher education institutions in Washington State have worked together to develop field-specific pathways, including an associate of science in transfer that four-year colleges report provides strong preparation for majors in biological sciences and engineering and computer sciences.

Research by the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges indicates that students with these “AS-T degrees” who transfer to a university are more likely to earn a bachelor’s in STEM fields and to complete fewer credits overall than students who followed the more general education-oriented statewide transfer agreement. In other fields, state “major-related transfer degrees” are being created that will transfer for both general education credits and most major-specific credits required by universities in the state. Major-specific transfer pathways are at various stages of development in California, Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Tennessee and a few other states.

Still, these systems are far from perfect. Because program-specific premajor requirements can vary across four-year colleges and universities, the chances that students will take courses that fail to transfer toward major requirements will always be present. Even in states with field- or major-specific pathways, four-year institutions need to develop program-specific transfer guides to help students and their advisers understand requirements unique to their programs. But systems like those in Washington State offer a way to pursue two important objectives simultaneously: increasing efficient credit transfer and helping students find direction.

It will be years before such polices are developed and refined in every state. In the meantime, community colleges and their four-year partners must understand the limitations of guaranteed gen-ed credit transfer and help prospective transfer students develop a sense of direction as early as possible. Only by doing so can they deliver what students and taxpayers expect in an era of increasingly scarce resources: college degrees that students can earn affordably and relatively quickly.

Joshua Wyner is executive director of the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program. Davis Jenkins is a senior research associate at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College.

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