After Jessica Grubb transferred from Austin Community College to Texas State University, she put off taking math, a requirement for graduation. She had failed or dropped out of remedial-level math classes at Austin several times.
The 23-year-old special education major then took an intensive remedial math program at Texas State, known as Fundamentals of Conceptual Understanding & Success, and not only conquered the college math course but learned vital study skills that helped propel her to the dean's list.
“I think if they hadn't really immersed me in math.... I don't think that I would still be in college,' said Grubb, who now tutors other students in math.
Success stories like this are rare in college remedial education, also known as developmental education, in which struggling students are required to take non-credit classes in basics like math, reading and writing to prepare for college-level courses.
About 60 percent of community college students enroll in at least one developmental education course, according to the Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College. At four-year colleges, about 20 percent of freshman students enroll in remedial classes, according to Complete College America, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., which has led efforts to reform remedial education.
One study estimated the annual cost of college-level remedial help to students, colleges and taxpayers at close to $7 billion.
Who is Responsible?
Now, a growing number of policymakers are raising questions about whether existing programs work and who is responsible for making sure students are ready for college-level work.
Research shows many college students who take developmental education classes, usually required when they score low on placement exams, fail to graduate. Only 28 percent of two-year college students who took at least one developmental course earned a degree or certificate within 8.5 years, compared to 43 percent of non-remedial students, according to one study. The study concluded the gap in graduation rates reflected differences in learning skills carried over from high school, rather than the impact of remedial classes themselves.
Other research discovered the placement exam scores that send students to remedial classes are poor predictors of students' success in college-level classes and that high school transcripts, for example, are a better measure.
Taking remedial classes adds to the time and expense required to obtain a degree, making it difficult for struggling students to succeed, said Bruce Vandal, vice president at Complete College America. “Essentially, we're saying these students who are at the most risk already — we're going to make them do more,' Vandal said.
States Take Action
Several states have jumped into the debate. Some are calling on high schools to step up. Indiana lawmakers, for example, approved a bill this spring directing high schools to identify students who may need remedial classes in college and help them before they leave high school.
Some states are demanding that colleges provide extra help to students as they take regular classes for credit. Advocates argue such an approach will help more students finish college by shortening the path to graduation.
This spring, Florida lawmakers approved legislation that will allow many students at the state's public colleges to skip developmental classes and enroll in college-level courses.
Last year, Colorado adopted legislation allowing public four-year colleges to place borderline students into regular credit-bearing classes and provide them with additional support. Previously, the colleges were required to send those students to community colleges for remedial classes.
In 2011, Texas lawmakers required colleges to base developmental coursework on research-based best practices and allowed colleges to exempt students in developmental education courses from paying tuition. That same year, lawmakers approved a law calling for the state to develop a plan for developmental education.
Complete College America also supports strengthening education in high school to better prepare students for college and allowing students who need minimal help into regular college classes but with support, such as tutoring. For students who need more help, the organization suggests extending a full-credit course over two semesters rather than one. Vandal said officials in 33 states and the District of Columbia have pledged to work with Complete College America.
Connecticut last year adopted legislation that embraces many of these ideas, with the aim of helping more students graduate. The law requires public colleges, starting in fall of 2014, to build remedial education into credit-bearing courses. It also restricts separate remedial courses to one semester per student, and requires the public colleges to use multiple measures to determine which students may need extra support.
“The goal was to get rid of remediation as we know it but still provide students' support,' said state Sen. Beth Bye, a Democrat who sponsored the bill. “I want to see students who are making a living wage because their degree helped them get there and companies that have the workers they need because we're graduating enough kids.'
Connecticut channeled an additional $2 million to the community colleges to support the effort this year, and Bye hopes to find an additional $8 million next year.
Critics of these reforms worry that scaling back remedial education could leave some students unprepared. Many of the new remediation models work very well for students who need minimal extra help, said Patti Levine-Brown, president of the National Association for Developmental Education. But for students who need more time to get their skills up to college level, she said, “placing them in courses for which they are not prepared is akin to setting them up for failure.'
“We learned in the 1960s that allowing students to take and fail college level courses and retake those classes did not increase completion rates,' Levine-Brown said. “In fact, it resulted in high withdrawal rates and diminished finances for students.'
Students drop out for many reasons, none of which is addressed by the reforms and innovations now being mandated by states, according to Hunter Boylan, director of the National Center for Developmental Education at Appalachian State University in North Carolina. Among the factors that contribute to students dropping out, he said, are poverty, minority status, being underprepared by their high schools and being the first generation in their families to attend college.
“We have to train people to be more effective instructors,' Boylan said, particularly for students needing the most help.
In Florida, Kenneth Ross, vice president for academic and student services at Polk State College, said his colleagues were shocked by the state's decision to change remedial education so drastically and let students go straight to college-level courses. He worries that the students who need the most help will pay the price.
“I think they're going to struggle,' he said, “and unless we have some other kind of massive tutoring support which they've not funded us for, they're going . . . to struggle and then flunk out, and then they're wasting their money twice.'