Blog: Higher Ed Beat

Florida Colleges Face Life Without Remediation

Letting students decide whether they need remedial courses is shortsighted, Valencia College President Sandy Shugart said. Valencia College/Don Burlinson

Each year, hundreds of thousands of new college students arrive on campus unable to handle freshman level work and wind up in remedial classes. That’s a major frustration not only to the students but also to lawmakers who believe public dollars are being used twice for the same instruction – once at the K-12 level, then again in postsecondary financial aid.

Consider these statistics from a 2014 story by the Wall St. Journal: “The amount of federal Pell grants—the federal aid program for modest-income Americans—awarded to remedial-education students, in today’s dollars, has more than quadrupled since the 1999-2000 academic year, amounting to $4.6 billion in 2011-2012. That reflected 14 percent of all Pell grant aid.”

And beyond the fiscal cost, the forecast for the individual students who require remediation isn’t promising: Nationally, only about one out of every four freshmen who require remedial classes will graduate college within eight years.

To combat that issue, Florida legislators took extreme measures: As of 2014, recent graduates of the state’s high schools cannot be compelled to enroll in remedial classes, and public colleges and universities are forbidden from mandating that these students even be tested to measure their readiness for freshman work.

The wrong fix?

Some experts contend that this is an example of “lawmakers who didn’t really know much about remedial education trying to fix remedial education,” said Inside Higher Ed Co-founder and Editor Scott Jaschik, at EWA’s recent Higher Education Seminar in Florida.

A handful of other states are considering similar measures, said Jaschik, who moderated a conversation on the remediation issue with former Rep. George Miller (D-California) and Sandy Shugart, president of Valencia College in Orlando, Florida, which hosted the seminar.

Watch video of session

“This is a popular idea because people look at statistics showing that relatively few remedial students make it through all the way through to earn degrees and people say ‘Why are we doing this’,” Jaschik said. “The ‘whys’, of course, have all sorts of complicated answers that not all legislators want to hear.”

For Valencia, the new law forced a sharp reversal in the college’s approach to helping new students adjust to the challenges of higher education, Shugart said. Beginning in the early 1990s, Valencia was among the first community colleges to not only require incoming students be tested but also to mandate their course placement based on those results. Students were either identified as “college ready” or “developmental”, Shugart said.

As a result of those placements, Valencia quickly saw a significant improvement in the pass rate for “gateway courses” such as freshman composition and beginning algebra, and with the overall graduation rate, according to Shugart.  The college also started classifying remedial students based on whether they needed help in one, two or all three core subjects – reading, writing and math. Valencia’s graduation rate for the middle-level students (those needing remedial classes in two areas) is double the national average for community colleges overall, he said. But Shugart was blunt not to oversell the progress, particularly for the weakest newcomers who receive remedial instruction in all three areas.

“We doubled their graduation rates over time, from 6 percent to 12 percent,” Shugart said. “It’s a long way to go for us to feel proud about the results we’ve gotten with those students.”

At the same time, Shugart said the gateway classes are the ones to watch when trying to predict which students are most likely to struggle, or succeed, in higher education.

“This isn’t someone’s opinion. It’s empirical,” Shugart said. “The best predictor of graduation going through college is success in your first attempt at your first five classes. No incompletes, no Ds or Fs, no withdrawals.”

But that wisdom might not apply under Florida’s new model for remediation, Shugart said. Taking that diagnostic tool away from colleges, and putting the onus on students to decide whether they want to pursue remedial coursework, is shortsighted, Shugart said. In the first year of the new law, Valencia has seen a 25 percent drop in the pass rate among students in their first-year math classes, which he attributed to removing the remediation requirement. (Valencia’s not the only Florida postsecondary institution to see a decline in achievement, Inside Higher Ed reported.)

Passing the buck

During his tenure in Congress, as Jaschik noted, Miller was involved in “every major piece of education legislation for the last generation” and was also critical of remedial education as an obstacle to a higher completion rate.

When asked by Jaschik what advice he would give to current lawmakers about the remediation crisis, Miller—who is now senior education advisor for Cengage Learning—said he would tell them it’s a mistake to think of it as a problem that starts when a student shows up for their first of college classes.

“You’ve had these students for 12 years, you’ve known this pattern throughout their academic experience, and then you’ve just off-loaded them to the community colleges and said ‘OK, now get ‘em up to speed so they can succeed,’” Miller said. “That’s a big charge. You have to back this up (to the K-12 system).”

Too often, students have had little experience with success in math early in their academic careers, and that creates an intense fear of failure, Miller said. He pointed out that he once called remedial classes “a killer” because there was evidence that failing those classes sent students fleeing from higher education, never to return.

He said the Common Core State Standards hold promise as a means of giving students better foundational skills early on, which will translate into stronger performance beyond high school.  But there also is a need for college classes geared toward math skills that people will find valuable for their everyday lives and future career goals, Miller said.

At the same time, the quality of instruction in the K-12 system has to be improved, Miller said, rather than just waiting to hand underprepared students over to remedial classes at the college level. That’s particularly true for students of color and those from low-income families, he added.

Cutting off funding for developmental education outright because “it hasn’t been very well-implemented in most places” isn’t the answer, Miller said. Rather, there should be more innovative thinking about how to deliver the gateway courses, improve outcomes at the K-12 level so that students are in a better position to succeed, he said.

“What are you going to do about the students who don’t have sufficient working knowledge of math to do what they want to do with their lives in the career that they’re in?” Miller asked. “I’m not talking about being a mathematician. I’m talking [about] navigating the workplaces in today’s economy.”

For Valencia, the struggle now is to help students find their best path for success without violating the new state law prohibiting placement tests. That’s something he would like to see dropped, Shugart said.

““I can’t think of a universe where it’s better for a learner not to know what she doesn’t know,” Shugart said.