At a time when growing numbers of first-generation, minority, and older adult students are going to college, the California State University system, the nation’s largest public-university system, this year
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At a time when growing numbers of first-generation, minority, and older adult students are going to college, the California State University system, the nation’s largest public-university system, this year eliminated all freestanding remedial courses. Next year, the state’s entire community-college system will do the same. The moves, which are being watched by reformers and instructors nationwide, will have especially far-reaching consequences for open-access colleges and those that accept the vast majority of students who apply.
Those who favor a shift toward corequisite remediation, in which students start out in college-level classes with support on the side, describe California’s wholesale buy-in as a turning point. They think it could put the nail in the coffin of the sequence of stand-alone remedial classes that trips up so many students.
But skeptics worry that reformers may end up harming many of the students they’re trying to help. They say it’s unrealistic to expect nearly everyone to succeed right off the bat in a college-level class — no matter how much advising, tutoring, and nonacademic support they receive. What will happen to the returning adult whose last math class was three decades ago, the immigrant for whom English is a second language, or the first-generation student overwhelmed with work and family obligations? Will they finally get the chance they deserve to succeed in college, as the reformers would argue, or is needed support being pulled out from under them?
When Christy Stevens enrolled in Pellissippi State Community College in Tennessee more than two decades after graduating from high school, calling her math rusty would be an understatement.
“I graduated from high school with a general-studies degree — no advanced classes, no geometry or trigonometry, no algebra, no nothing,” she said. At 18, she became a single parent and worked two jobs, trying on and off over the next several years to attend college classes.
With her professor’s round-the-clock support in the spring semester last year, using an app that allowed her to seek help with homework day or night, she earned a B-plus in the corequisite survey of math course. But Stevens, who hopes to become a fifth-grade science teacher, barely squeaked by with a D in the subsequent course in geometry that she needed to graduate with her associate degree.
She said she would have appreciated the chance to brush up on her math skills in a remedial class before plunging in to college-level work. That wasn’t an option: In 2015, Tennessee became the first state to drop such classes in favor of a statewide shift to corequisite remediation.
Early results have been promising, especially for students just below the placement cutoff score. But “I’m not one of these 19-year-olds coming out of high school with geometry fresh on my brain,” said Stevens, now 43. “I’ve had to crawl and dig for math knowledge to pass these courses.” Prerequisite refresher classes, she said, “should be an option” for students like her.
The professor of mathematics Stevens credits with helping her pass her first college math course agrees that many students need a more robust on-ramp. “Expecting them to do the prerequisite material, learn the college-level material, and figure out how to navigate college and go full time — because everyone’s pushing everyone to go full time — we’re setting many of them up for failure,” said Mary Monroe-Ellis.
The result has been a push to find ways for students to speed through remediation or bypass it altogether.
“When you examine the data, you’ll see that if you give students an opportunity and adequate support, they can meet the demands” of college-level work, said James T. Minor, senior strategist for academic success and inclusive excellence for the California State system. As the evidence continues to build, “I believe we will, as a responsible, progressive university system, move away from labeling students who have been admitted ‘not ready for college,’ ” he added. “Instead, we’ll figure out, with all of the Ph.D. brainpower we have, how to support the students who arrive on our campuses trusting the university to transform their lives.”
Cal State officials said they were encouraged by preliminary numbers released this week. Last fall nearly 7,800 students passed a college-level math course, compared with 950 the previous year.
In both years, about 17,400 first-year students were determined to be unprepared for college-level math. Two-thirds of those who went ahead anyway, under the new system, and took a college-level class with supports, ultimately succeeded. The pass rate for the gateway math course was the same as in the fall of 2017.
The shift toward eliminating stand-alone remedial classes in California is part of a flood of reform efforts that have swept the country in recent years. In 2013, Florida made such classes optional, and state lawmakers took advantage of the reduced remedial ranks to suggest cutting appropriations to two-year colleges.
Tennessee also yanked those courses in its statewide shift to corequisite remediation.
The reformers, supported by grants from major philanthropies including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Kresge Foundation, have persuaded a growing number of state lawmakers and college-system administrators that remedial classes are among the biggest barriers to college completion.
Corequisite remediation, which takes different forms on different campuses, has risen to the top of the reform strategies, with rollouts across such states as Colorado, Georgia, Indiana, and Tennessee.
Sometimes students are assigned to a college-level class with a companion course that helps them catch up and better understand the material. Or the support may consist mainly of extra tutoring, peer study sessions, and work in the computer lab.
The demographic challenges facing colleges have raised the stakes on getting underprepared students up to speed as quickly as possible. Shrinking numbers of 18-year-olds have forced many open-access colleges to step up their recruitment of older adults, veterans, and others who have been out of school for years. The economic downturn that many are expecting could send more older adults back to college. In states with shrinking applicant pools or free community-college tuition, less-selective four-year colleges are having to dig deeper into their applicant pools to fill their seats. Meanwhile, growing numbers of underrepresented-minority students pose equity challenges for colleges since, statistically, black and Hispanic students are far more likely to end up — and get stuck — in remedial classes.
Rebecca Goosen, associate vice chancellor for college preparatory at San Jacinto College in Texas, is pleased that the days of putting students in sequences of up to three remedial courses are over.
But Goosen, a national leader in developmental education, said that despite the fervor for corequisite courses, they may not work for those who are least prepared. “I hope the train doesn’t crash down the road because we’re putting students who really struggle, especially in math, in classes they can’t handle,” she said.
“If you give students an opportunity and adequate support, they can meet the demands” of college-level work.
This year, the State of Texas required that 25 percent of students needing developmental education be placed in corequisite classes. “We skim off the top and take the students who are almost there — and they’re successful,” Goosen said. Next year, the requirement will jump to 50 percent, and the following, 75 percent. Goosen said she fought efforts to require corequisite remediation for all developmental students.
Some students arrive perplexed by fractions and relying on calculators. “What do you want me to do with a student who doesn’t understand the number line, reads at a fourth-grade level, and can’t write a complete sentence?” she asked. Despite a robust system of corequisite support that involves two instructors for 20 students circulating, answering questions, frequently testing, and giving nightly homework, “we’ve had to take students out of co-rec because they weren’t going to survive,” Goosen said.
Skeptics question whether enough is known about how underprepared students who are placed directly in a college-level course fare after that first course. Do they go on to succeed in upper-level courses, earn a certificate or degree? Or is there too much emphasis on whether they make it through their first college-level course? In addition, skeptics point out that many of the studies that have shown successes in skipping remedial courses focus on students who scored near the placement cutoff. Far less is known about how the least-prepared students would fare.
Nineteen states or college systems now allow for the use of multiple measures in placement decisions, according to a state-by-state summary of developmental-education policies published by the Education Commission of the States.
Some of the most promising strategies are being supported and expanded with competitive grants from the commission’s Strong Start to Finish program, whose goals include helping low-income, underrepresented-minority, and returning adult students succeed in college-level math and English and enter a program of study in their first year.
- Demographic challenges have raised the stakes for getting underprepared students up to speed as quickly as possible.
- Corequisite remediation, which starts with a college-level class with support alongside, allows many more students to pass a credit-bearing course.
- Debate continues over whether eliminating freestanding remedial courses will help or hinder underprepared students.
- Some faculty members feel pressured to lower their academic standards.
- Nonacademic stressors are just as likely to derail underprepared students as academic deficiencies.
The law affecting California’s community colleges, which will take effect in the fall, requires them to consider measures other than standardized placement tests, like high-school coursework and grades, in placing students. It prohibits community colleges from requiring students to enroll in remedial English or math courses that lengthen the time to graduation unless the students are deemed “highly unlikely to succeed” in transfer-level courses.
The stakes are high. Three-quarters of California’s incoming community-college students have been identified in recent years as underprepared, the vast majority placed in remedial courses, the legislation states. After six years, only 40 percent of them will have a degree or certificate or transfer, compared with 70 percent of students who were allowed to enroll directly in college-level courses, according to the state’s Student Success Scorecard.
Regardless of how you measure it, colleges will continue to face the challenge of educating students who are underprepared. A 2017 Hechinger Report investigation concluded that 96 percent of the two- and four-year colleges surveyed enrolled students who were deemed unready for college-level work. That came as a surprise to many of the students, who had passed standardized tests that indicated they were ready to graduate from high school.
That gap — between high-school and college expectations — continues to confound education reformers. And it explains why many colleges are working closely with neighboring school systems to better align what students are expected to know.
But some say the gap is overstated. “Students were probably always more ready for college than we gave them credit for,” said Bruce Vandal, a senior vice president for Complete College America who oversees the nonprofit’s corequisite-support strategy. “If students are successful in high school, they’ll generally be successful in college.”
The educators who are trying to spread corequisite approaches broadly would like to see a shift in thinking about students deemed unprepared. “They’re saying we need to remove the words ‘remedial’ and ‘developmental education’ from our vocabulary,” Vandal said. Instead of focusing on the deficits some students come with, “we should focus on treating all students as college students from Day 1.”
Katie Hern, an English instructor at Chabot College, a two-year institution, said she co-founded a faculty-led effort called the California Acceleration Project in 2010 after discovering that “the classes we had developed to help students be more successful were hurting them.” Accelerated pathways, including corequisite classes, benefit students from all racial and ethnic groups, all placement and income levels, she said.
“CSU needs to continue to address the developmental needs some students come to college with,” said Michal Kurlaender, a professor of education policy at the University of California at Davis. “We want to avoid a sink or swim situation.”
Ending remedial classes could, she worries, have unintended consequences for the students the policy aims to help. “In a system stretched by increasing enrollment and declining state resources, ending remediation may lead some to want to reduce access to students not deemed ready for college-level work,” Kurlaender wrote in September in the journal EducationNext.
”Yet doing so would disproportionately harm students of color and low-income students, who have less access to the opportunities that determine college readiness in the first place.”
Last year about four in 10 entering freshmen across Cal State’s 23 campuses were assigned to at least one remedial math or English class. The university redesigned or merged about 880 remedial sections, mostly into corequisite or “stretch” classes that span two semesters instead of one.
Alfredo Orantes, a freshman at California State University at Los Angeles, admits he needed extra math support after graduating from high school in June. Instead of being assigned to a full year of remedial math, he was placed in a credit-bearing precalculus course over the summer, followed by another corequisite class in the fall.
“At first I was struggling to get the hang of it,” he said. But by taking advantage of tips to study in groups, sign up for peer tutoring, and drop in to his professor’s office hours, he was able to keep up.
The remedial reforms are part of the system’s Graduation Initiative 2025, which aims to raise the four-year graduation rate to 40 percent and the six-year rate to 70 percent by 2025. The idea is that by dropping remedial courses and graduating students faster, the system will have more spots available for new students.
But not all faculty members are on board. James Daniel Lee, a professor and chair of justice studies at San Jose State University, won’t accept students who aren’t ready for college-level math. His department was given the option to offer supplemental instruction for those were weren’t ready. Otherwise, unprepared students who wanted in would have to sign up for other tutoring offered by the university.
“I told them all we’re not going to participate,” he said. “Send me students who are ready for math.” He worries that faculty members will feel pressured to lower academic standards. High failure rates could jeopardize their own jobs, he said, especially given policy makers’ intense focus on the corequisite shift.
Math skills are crucial in his field. Crime-scene investigators have to know how to measure skid marks, for instance. “I’m concerned that in a few years, our employers are going to say, ‘Your students don’t know math. We can’t trust you as a source of our talent.’”
So what can be done to improve students’ chances of arriving at college ready to tackle credit-bearing work? In addition to signing students on to a rapidly growing number of dual-credit and advanced-placement classes, high schools are experimenting with ways to test college readiness by students’ junior year. Those who need to catch up can do so in a remedial class offered during their senior year.
Results of such moves have been mixed. Tennessee’s Seamless Alignment and Integrated Learning Support program, known as Sails, which shifts college math remediation to high school, eliminated students’ delay in entering credit-bearing, college-level courses. The problem is that once they got there, they were just as likely to fail the college-level math class.
True, there’s scant evidence that remedial courses boost students’ math knowledge, “but we don’t want to compound the problem by eliminating remediation altogether,” said Thomas J. Kane, a professor of education and economics at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who studied the Sails program. “It’s not just about access. It’s about completion.”
Shifting remediation to high school saves the state money, he said. Kane would like to see those savings shifted into beefed-up counseling and both academic and nonacademic supports that are crucial for disadvantaged students.
“Remedial courses are neither the major cause of the high noncompletion rate nor the solution for it,” he said.
“Some of the media attention we’ve received and the reforms being pushed assume that all developmental education is ineffective, and we know that’s not the case,” said D. Patrick Saxon, director of the doctoral program in developmental-education administration at Sam Houston State University in Texas.
When sweeping changes are made, strategies that have proved effective are in some cases being scrapped, he added. “My concern is the professionals who’ve spent so much time and energy and entire lives learning how to best serve underprepared students are being denigrated and left out of the discussion,” Saxon said.
A statewide group that had been known as the Tennessee Association for Developmental Education had to change its name to the Tennessee Association for Student Success and Retention because colleges wouldn’t pay to send educators to meetings about developmental education, Monroe-Ellis said.
“The attitude is that now that we’re all co-rec, developmental education doesn’t exist,” said Monroe-Ellis, who was dean of transitional studies at Pellissippi State until the position was eliminated. “Those people still have the same academic and nonacademic needs even if we’re throwing them directly into a college-level class.”
In a few years, our employers are going to say, ‘Your students don’t know math.’
The National Association for Developmental Education is considering a name change for the same reason. In 1984, it removed the word “remedial” from its title to emphasize the broader umbrella of developmental education, which includes tutoring, advising, time-management tips, and other supports.
Now, even the term “developmental,” which many still associate with stand-alone remedial courses, carries baggage some practitioners are eager to ditch. Doing so could allow the group to rebrand itself and appeal to new audiences, they argue.
Others want to keep the name and clear up misconceptions about what developmental education is. The way they see it, says Hunter R. Boylan, professor and director of the National Center for Developmental Education at Appalachian State University, “our detractors will continue to castigate us regardless of what we call ourselves, so why bother changing the name?”
While stand-alone remedial courses get a bad rap these days, one of the nation’s most successful models of remedial reform — City University of New York’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs, or ASAP — allows students who need them to start there. The program, which has been replicated nationally, bolsters remedial and college-level courses with extensive financial, academic, and personal supports. A study by the nonprofit research group MDRC found that it nearly doubled three-year graduation rates.
One of the earliest models of corequisite remediation was the Accelerated Learning Program, or ALP, offered to English students at the Community College of Baltimore County. Students scoring just below the placement cutoff were allowed to take two simultaneous courses: one college-level and a companion refresher course. Since the program began in 2007, it’s been adapted by more than 300 colleges nationwide.
Despite the program’s successes in propelling students through English 101, the college’s president, Sandra L. Kurtinitis, said there will always be some who aren’t ready for college classes. “It’s not fair to put an unprepared student into a zone where expectations are real and they don’t have the ability to meet them,” she said.
Her college still offers prerequisite remedial courses, although far fewer today. And applicants who would struggle in a corequisite class are sometimes encouraged to pursue a noncredit certificate. Kurtinitis cited the example of an animal lover who wanted to be a veterinarian, but whose math skills were so weak he’d be unlikely to succeed in even a veterinary-technician program. Advisers suggested a four-month continuing-education program to train as a veterinary assistant, and he’s now happily working in a clinic, washing dogs and helping technicians, she said.
Everyone wants to give students the fastest-possible trajectory to a credential and career, Kurtinitis said.
“But we are an open-door institution, which means all people are welcome here. We need to meet them where they are and give them the support that they need.”