Blog: The Educated Reporter

Experts: Community College Results Weighed Down by Remediation

Jeffrey Beall/Flickr ( CC BY-SA 2.0)

From politicians to policymakers, the argument goes that sustaining America’s competitive edge will rely largely on more students graduating college.

But while the nation has notched successes in sending more students to postsecondary institutions, the college dropout rate remains stubbornly high. One major reason for the attrition: Millions of high school graduates are academically unprepared for the rigors of higher ed.

Estimates show that anywhere from a quarter to 40 percent of college students need at least some remediation – one or more courses that rehash knowledge the student is expected to know but doesn’t.  These developmental classes don’t grant students academic credit but still cost money – a reality many scholars point to as a significant barrier to students’ ability to afford to get to the finish line. Remediation is most prevalent at community colleges, where more than two-thirds of the students are estimated to take such a course. 

And that’s also where America’s college completion rate suffers the most. Roughly half the nation’s postsecondary students are enrolled at community colleges; meanwhile, studies show 90 percent of students needing even one remedial course fail to complete a community college degree program after three years. (Federal data show 20 percent of students earning a two-year degree at a community college graduate in three years, though other research has shown higher completion rates over longer periods of time.)

For many researchers and policymakers, increasing college completion rates largely depends on improving developmental education – the body of courses and services schools use to shift students out of the remedial doldrums and into credit-granting courses.

“I think the people that are doing the work in community colleges with developmental education are some of the heroes that we have in this country,” said Elisabeth Barnett, a scholar at Columbia University’s Community College Research Center. Barnett was one of three panelists discussing community colleges at EWA’s September Higher Education Seminar at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

She points to evidence that suggests that current approaches to remedial education aren’t yielding positive effects. One method of assessing the strength of a developmental program is evaluating students who placed just above the cutoff line on content knowledge tests needed to enter credit-bearing courses and compare them to those who placed just below the score required to test out of remediation. Researchers call this the “regression discontinuity” approach.

Statistically speaking, these students had similar test results, meaning their content knowledge is practically the same. Researchers are then able to measure the effect remedial education had on the students placed in such classes.

The Community College Research Center published a summary of research papers that examined different developmental education models using this regression discontinuity approach. Based on those 49 studies, students who scored just below the cutoff line and were placed in remedial courses were far less likely to stay in school or advance to the next course. In just two studies did students yield positive results.

There are several explanations for the poor showing among developmental programs. For one, “many students were told they need to take a developmental education course and they didn’t enroll, or perhaps they finished one and they didn’t enroll in the next course,” Barnet said.

In a study that looked at more than 63,000 students enrolled in math remediation, only a tenth completed the course series. A third of those 63,000 students didn’t pass or dropped out of the remedial course, but more than 50 percent simply didn’t enroll in the next level of the course series.

Some states are experimenting with developmental interventions that appear to buck the trend of dismal remediation results. In Virginia, college leaders created separate math placement exams for students interested in the liberal arts and STEM disciplines, tweaking the assessments to more accurately reflect the differing skillsets required for these course streams. The percentage of students who placed in the credit-bearing courses jumped from 11 to 43 percent in the first year of the new exams. The change also led to higher degree-completion rates, though more students than before failed their courses, suggesting a tradeoff between policies that could lead to more degrees but also could result in more students stumbling later on in their academic careers.

David Baime, chief spokesperson for the American Association of Community Colleges, told the roomful of journalists at the EWA seminar about Community College of Baltimore County, which allows students to enroll simultaneously in developmental and credit-bearing English courses. The model gives “students the sweetener of the course they want along with the developmental education,” Baime said.

Baime also clued reporters in on a worthwhile story to write: More high schools are awarding students dual community college credit as a way to encourage higher graduation rates. But the course rigor is questionable, Baime says. A February 2014 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education told the stories of several dual enrollment students who were laden with college credit in high school but flamed out once they entered an institution of higher learning.


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