Members of the professional community in developmental education agree with many studies suggesting that simply placing students in remedial courses is an inadequate response to the problems of underpreparedness among entering college students. They would further tend to agree that the current process of identifying and placing underprepared students is flawed and that the entire process of assessing, advising and teaching them needs reform.
But if there is a “solution” to the remediation education “problem,” it is vastly more complex than many reform advocates and most policy makers acknowledge.
It will require that community colleges change the way they do remediation. It will also require that they address non-academic issues that may prevent students from succeeding, improve the quality of instruction at all levels, revise financial aid policies, provide better advising to students at risk, integrate instruction and support services, teach college success skills, invest in professional development and do all of these things in a systematic manner integrated into the mainstream of the institution.
It may be useful for reformers to collaborate with the developmental education professional community, a community that has not only supported but invented many of the innovations reformers have proposed. Instead many policy makers are ignoring these professionals and requiring colleges to adopt unproven innovations disconnected from institutional systems or existing innovations. .
Policy makers often fail to understand that the majority of remedial courses are taught by adjunct faculty who, although they may possess content expertise, often have no idea how to teach underprepared students. Many of them do not understand the principles of adult learning and development and they are offered no support or training to help them learn techniques to teach these students. Although learning laboratories, tutoring and other support services are often available, few systematic efforts are made to ensure that those enrolled in remedial courses participate in them. The services designed to help students succeed in course work are seldom integrated into the courses they are supposed to support. In addition to this, underprepared students are often placed in some sort of computer-based or online remedial course, frequently without assessing their levels of computer access or literacy.
During the past decade, several research studies of varying quality have indicated this model of remediation doesn’t work -- that too few students complete it -- and those who do often fail to graduate. This has stimulated a nationwide discussion of remediation and a large number of foundation-funded initiatives to reform it.
Historically, reform efforts in remediation have been only moderately effective. Much of this is due to the fact that alternative models were thought to be too expensive and more labor-intensive than the traditional remedial model. Given the limited funding with which most community colleges operate, those thoughts were probably accurate. Furthermore, many community college leaders had no idea how poorly remediation was working and there were few incentives to find out. It was only after various groups began to measure the outcomes of remediation during the early years of the 21st century that we realized the poverty of those outcomes. Encouraged and supported by foundation funding, colleges across the country then began to experiment with new ways of providing remediation to the large numbers of students who needed it to be successful.
Meanwhile, new players entered the remediation reform game, usually without consulting any of those who were already advocating the reform of remediation. These new players included policy makers, foundation officers, politicians and organizations that sustained themselves with government and foundation grants -- few of them with any knowledge of or experience with underprepared students. Some of these individuals and organizations began the scientific study of remediation in an attempt to find data that might provide pathways to more successful remediation. Others simply announced that they had found the pathways.
The reformers have provided policy makers with an array of proposed solutions possessing various degrees of promise, research support and likelihood of success. The fact that there is often little research evidence supporting the proposed solutions appears not to bother either the policy advocates or the state legislators they lobby. There are two other major shortcomings with contemporary reform efforts in remediation. The first is that most reform advocates are promoting piecemeal, non-systematic change. The second is that none of the proposed reforms address the underlying causes of poor performance among underprepared students.
Many contemporary reformers are promoting specific techniques such as embedded support services, modular instruction, contextualized instruction, computer based instruction or accelerated remedial courses. Some are even advocating that remedial courses be eliminated entirely and replaced with these techniques. What these reform efforts fail to acknowledge, but what experts in the field know well, is that no innovation is going to be successful in a community college unless the institutional system into which it is being introduced also changes. There are those who contend that remediation is broken and needs to be abandoned. Equally likely, the campus system in which remediation takes place is broken and simply adding an innovation to the system or removing remedial courses from it will not fix anything.
Most community colleges do not have the resources to do the sort of intrusive academic advising needed by underprepared students. Academic support services in the community colleges are not systematically connected to the courses they are supposed to support. There is little focused faculty development for those working with underprepared students. The system provides few rewards for working effectively with underprepared students. There is insufficient communication between those who teach remedial courses and those who teach college-level courses. There are, of course, some exceptions to these circumstances, but they exist only at a minority of community colleges. Innovations introduced into environments such as described here are unlikely to be successful because the environment itself mitigates against success.
Furthermore, many of the proposed innovations fail to address the conditions that cause students to be underprepared. There is a naïve assumption among many policy makers that if we just find different ways of presenting the material to students, they will do well in college. If we are to increase success rates for underprepared students, we will also need to address the reasons why minorities and the poor and first-generation students perform poorly in the first place.
If policy makers are so convinced that they have a solution to remediation, then they should at least have the integrity to build evaluation plans into their policies and reforms. Ongoing systematic evaluation is a critical component of successful innovation which has been advocated in the field of developmental education for over two decades. If it turns out that the policies and reforms are successful, there will be proof that others can use to improve their programs. If it turns out that they are not, then the evaluation data can be used to inform the revisions of policies and innovations.
Thus far, few policy makers have bothered to build evaluation plans into their reform plans. In so doing, they are making the same mistake that let the shortcomings of traditional remediation remain for so long. They are not bothering to look at the results of what they have put into place, perhaps because they, too, have no incentives for doing so.
Hunter R. Boylan is the director of the National Center for Developmental Education and a professor of higher education at Appalachian State University.
Stephen R. Adkison, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Eastern Oregon University, has been appointed provost and vice president for academic affairs at Henderson State University, in Arkansas.
Eric J. Barron, president of Florida State University, has been chosen as president of Pennsylvania State University.
Submitted by Stan Jones on April 18, 2014 - 3:00am
Remedial education and the instructors who provide it are critical to maintaining college access and increasing student success, but the traditional model deployed by most colleges and universities is badly broken. Complete College America’s call for reform is not about the total elimination of remediation. It is about transforming the system to ensure more students succeed.
The numbers are staggering: of the up to 60 percent of community college students who are assigned to remediation, 10 percent graduate within three years. Even given four years for a two-year degree, chances remain slim that these students will complete college. Further, 70 percent of students placed into remedial math never even attempt a college-level gateway course within two academic years.
These numbers -- which are provided by the campuses and states -- are indisputable evidence that we can no longer defend the status quo when it comes to remedial education. They are also a poignant reminder that we must not measure our success by whether students pass remedial education courses alone, but instead implement models that dramatically increase the number of students who pass gateway college-level courses and ultimately earn a degree. Doing any less would be to deny millions of Americans access to the one proven means to finding a well-paying job and entering the middle class -- a college credential.
In working with the 34 members of our Alliance of States, Complete College America has sought out the strategies and best practices that most effectively address these challenges. Most importantly, these innovations have been developed and implemented by college faculty who are passionately committed to student success.
The Accelerated Learning Program (ALP), developed by longtime community college English instructor Peter Adams, has doubled success rates for students, with 74 percent completing gateway courses in English in one semester. Likewise, the Structured Assistance program, developed by Tristan Denley when he was at Austin Peay State University, provides students who previously required remedial courses additional support in learning labs while they are enrolled in gateway college-level courses. The results have been astounding, with 78 percent of students successfully completing gateway courses in quantitative reasoning and 65 percent in statistics in a single term -- up from about 10 percent under traditional remediation models.
In these approaches, institutions are not eliminating remedial education, as some have suggested. Instead, they are shifting it from a prerequisite requirement to a corequisite, where students receive support while enrolled in the gateway courses. By delivering corequisite remediation alongside the college-level course, we eliminate attrition points -- the moments where students are most likely to fall out of the system -- and give remedial education instructors a framework in which many, many more of their students can succeed. We have found that it is not what happens in classrooms that is the problem -- but what happens from one semester to the next. Lengthening a student’s academic program by adding time and courses reduces the likelihood of their graduation. We are excited that innovators have found a way to solve the attrition problem without compromising the quality of instruction or lowering academic standards.
Around the country, efforts like corequisite remediation are gaining momentum. At a White House summit this past winter, 22 states made commitments to significantly increase the percentage of students placed into remedial education who complete gateway courses in one academic year. In addition, seven states have committed to scaling corequisite remediation statewide by 2015, ensuring that the majority of underprepared students in their states receive the academic support they need while enrolled in gateway courses.
These principles for reform are based on a recognition that our current system allows too many students to fall through the cracks -- students who want nothing more than an opportunity to chase their dreams and reach their full potential. Our work is not a devaluation of the extraordinary efforts undertaken by remedial education instructors, but a challenge for all of us to work together and empower their work with innovation and ingenuity.
At Complete College America, we believe -- and research has shown -- that far more students can succeed in college-level gateway courses than are currently placed into them. But we also know that such successes are dependent on additional support. Many students need remediation, but we have to deliver it in a way that is effective.
CCA supports any and all models that can show dramatic improvements in the number of students who successfully complete gateway math and English courses and ultimately earn a college degree. We look forward to continuing to work with faculty and higher education leaders from across the country to accomplish this critical goal.
Stan Jones is president and founder of Complete College America, a national nonprofit working to significantly increase the number of Americans with a college degree or credential of value and to close attainment gaps for traditionally underrepresented populations.
I approach the topic of the appropriate reach of government regulation into higher education in very much of two minds. On the one hand, I am the president of an independent-minded private college that has been in continuous operation for 139 years and delivers strong outcomes in terms of access, persistence, graduation, employment and post-graduation debt. Regulation from the federal government isn't likely to impose higher performance thresholds than we have already established for ourselves (and consistently achieved), or to improve our performance, but added regulations will very likely impose new costs on us related to compliance, in addition to being just plain irritating.
On the other hand, I serve on the Board of Trustees of the Higher Learning Commission, and that service has opened my eyes both to the broad variety of institutions that the Commission serves and, very frankly, to instances of institutions that have gone awry, that are not serving their students well, that are not good stewards of the federal dollars that flow through their budgets, and that are either unwilling to admit their shortcomings or unable to address them.
The investment that government -- both federal and state -- makes in financial aid to students, who then pay that money to us so that we can use it to deliver our programs, is certainly considerable, and we need to be good stewards of it, so that students are well-served and taxpayers' dollars well-spent. If those ends are to be achieved, some regulation will be necessary.
So, how much is just right? Here’s an answer: the minimum amount necessary to achieve the two goals I just mentioned: ensure that students are well-served and that tax dollars are well-spent
As the reaction from the higher education community to the Department of Education's talk about a federal rating system for colleges and universities demonstrates, those seemingly simply goals I just articulated aren't simple at all once you get into any level of detail in specifying what it means to be "well-served" or "well-spent."
Does "well-served" for example tie out to a minimally acceptable four- or six-year graduation rate? What about open-access institutions whose mission is to prepare underserved students to succeed at a different kind of institution? What about institutions in a situation where graduation may not be the most important goal?
"Well-spent" raises similar questions. If you are an institution with a graduation rate in the 90 percents, but the percent of Pell-eligible students in your student body doesn’t reach the number of Pell-eligible students that somebody in an office in Washington decided was minimally acceptable, does that mean the federal dollars that flowed to your budget through student tuition payments weren't well-spent because they weren't supporting certain policy goals, despite evidence that your program is effective?
These problems aren't new. Every regulated industry faces them, and perhaps as we think about proposed increases in the regulation of higher education a wise thing to do would be to study those industries -- if any -- where the right balance between the actors in the industry and government regulation has been struck.
In the meantime, here are a few thoughts about how much government regulation is just right:
It's too much if it imposes compliance costs and burdens on institutions that plainly are serving students well and being good stewards of tax dollars.
It's not enough if there's demonstrable evidence that there are numbers of institutions with clearly articulated and appropriate mission statements that are not delivering on those missions but are nevertheless consuming significant resources.
It's not enough if there is clear and demonstrable evidence that self-regulation, and by that I mean accreditation, is ineffective.
It's too much if regulation requires an institution that is otherwise flourishing to change its mission in response to the policy goals of whoever happens to be running the U.S. Department of Education at the moment.
It's too much if the net effect is to narrow the diversity of types of higher education institutions in America, the diversity of their missions, of their entry points, and so forth.
It's too much if a compliance industry grows up around regulation.
It's too much if it can't be demonstrated that the net effect of the regulations, after the costs and burdens it imposes, has been to make institutions better serve students and steward tax dollars.
Many institutions of higher education in America don't need more regulation to help or force them do their job. Some do. Regulation that starts from that simple fact is most likely to be good for students, good for higher education, and good for the country.
David R. Anderson is president of St. Olaf College, in Minnesota. This column is adapted from remarks made at the panel on “How Much Government Regulation of Higher Education is Just Right?” at the 2014 Annual Conference of the Higher Learning Commission.