Forgetting Our History of Learning Assistance Leads to Access Denied at Four-Year Institutions

There has been considerable converation on the Internet recently about the decision of Ohio to eliminate most or all developmental-level (they use the outdated term "remedial"). The state hopes students will take the necessary courses at a (hopefully) nearby community college. Listening to the leaders in Ohio and other states talk, you would get the impression that the offering of developmental-level courses is a rather recent invention. Actually, tutorial programs have existed on the college campuses when they began as early as the 1700s. Harvard University was the first institution to offer developmental-level courses in the late 1800s and other colleges -- public and private -- quickly followed suit. While the White students attending college in the 1800s might have been coming from families of wealth and influence, their academic preparation was weak in English, math, reading, or some combination of the three. Colleges had to offer developmental-level courses to provide a chance for success for these students.

Although learning assistance has been a significant and sometimes controversial element in higher education, it is underreported by many historians of postsecondary education. Developmenatl-level courses are just one example of learning assistance. Others would be tutoring, mentoring, drop-in learning centers, study skill workshops, and the like.

A review of the professional literature demonstrates that some higher education historians ignore and others lightly record histor­ical events concerning learning assistance in U.S. postsecondary education. Although the learning assistance community has published numerous articles, dissertations, and monographs (Lundell and Higbee, 2002), those writing broad histories of higher education in the United States have paid little atten­tion to this area and the students involved (Arendale, 2001, 2002a, 2002b; Brubacher and Rudy, 1976; Lucas, 2006; Jeynas, 2007; Rudy, 1996; Stahl and King, 2009).

A review of this component of higher edu­cation documented that many students throughout U.S. history were involved with learning assistance activities such as academic tutoring, enrollment in remedial or developmental courses, and participation in learning assistance cen­ter services. At times, learning assistance programs involved more than half of all college students at an institution (Canfield, 1889; Ignash, 1997; Maxwell, 1997; Shedd, 1932). The lines become blurred as students simultaneously enroll in courses at the developmental and college level in different academic subjects. Academic preparedness is not a characteristic of the student; rather, it is a condition relative to a particular academic course during the same academic term. It is inaccurate to designate students as “remedial” or “developmental,” for they may be competent or expert in one academic content area and need­ing learning assistance credit and noncredit services in another.

Kammen (1997) provides an explanation for underreporting the history of learning assistance, identifying “historical amnesia” as a potential cause. Quoting Ralph Ellison, he says, “Perhaps this is why we possess two basic ver­sions of American history: one [that] is written and as neatly stylized as ancient myth, the other unwritten and as chaotic and full of contradictions, changes of pace, and surprises as life itself” (p. 164). Distortions of memory occur for a variety of reasons, not only for cynical or manipulative motives (Kammen, 1997). The researcher engages in a long discussion concerning the similarities and differences between the “heritage syndrome” and true history: “The her­itage syndrome, if I may call it that, almost seems to be a predictable but cer­tainly nonconspiratorial response—an impulse to remember what is attractive or flattering and to ignore all the rest. Heritage is comprised of those aspects of history that we cherish and affirm. As an alternative to history, heritage accen­tuates the positive but sifts away what is problematic. One consequence is that the very pervasiveness of heritage as a phenomenon produces a beguiling sense of serenity about the well being of history” (p. 220).

Acknowledging the role and importance of learning assistance presents uncomfortable statements about higher education:

  1. Academic bridge programs are necessary for many students to adjust to a college environment for which few are prepared academically or emotionally.
  2. Developmental-level courses were necessary for the White students from priveledged families in the 1800s due to poor academic preparation.
  3. Student subpopulations today other than the most privileged often need academic support systems to increase their chances for success resulting from dis­advantaged and deprived backgrounds. The same reason developmental-level courses were offered to White students of affluence in the 1800s is now denied to underrepresented and first-generation college students.
  4. The need for learning assistance indicts the efficacy and effectiveness of ele­mentary and secondary education.
  5. Scarce financial resources and personnel are necessary to meet the needs of students who are academically underprepared. Some students who drop out of college could have been retained through an effective learning assistance program.

Lack of knowledge about the history of learning assistance also contributes to current challenges for the field. For example, it is easier to curtail or eliminate learning assistance activities (especially developmental-level courses) if its historic importance for support and access to postsecondary education is not understood. As explored in the next chapter, learning assistance was an essential asset for colleges to support student achieve­ment and persistence. During the current period of financial emergency con­fronting many institutions, nonessential services are subject to reduction or elimination. It is not a surprise what Ohio higher education is doing since half a dozen other states have already enacted similar policies. Access to college just became that much more difficult for the "new" students to higher education.

  • Arendale, D. R. (2002). A memory sometimes ignored: The history of developmental edu­cation. Learning Assistance Review, 7(1), 5–13.
  • Arendale, D. R. (2002). Then and now: The early history of developmental education. Research & Teaching in Developmental Education, 18(2), 3–26.
  • Kammen, M. (1997). In the past lane: Historical perspectives on American culture. New York: Oxford University Press.