Stigma for Enrolling in Developmental-Level Courses

I have commented recently about how the state of Ohio is the latest to ban the offering of developmental-level courses at the four-year college level, instead reserving those offerings for the community-college system. While it initially appears to be a good policy decision to differentiate offerings among different types of public institutiohns, the discussions nearly always fail to take into account the psychological consequences of such decisions.

Scholars at several institutions conducted research studies concerning students’ perceptions of learning assistance programs, especially developmental credit courses. Research indicated negative stigma was attached, regardless of volun­tary or mandated enrollment (Higbee, Lundell, and Arendale, 2005; Pedelty, 2001; Valeri-Gold and others, 1997). Perceptions of stigma have plagued learning assistance throughout history. Some believe stigma increases restric­tions and curtails programs, especially at public four-year institutions (Barefoot, 2003; Jehangir, 2002; Martinez, Snider, and Day, 2003).

Various factors contribute to stigma: (1) mandatory enrollment in devel­opmental courses; (2) new students placed in cohorts identified for academic risk; (3) use of terms such as “at-risk students,” “high-risk students,” “devel­opmental students,” and “academically disadvantaged students,” all of which represent a negative condition characterizing students’ academic abilities and potential; (4) public policy fights over admission of students perceived to be academically underprepared; and (5) memories of emotional hazing in previ­ous schools.

Students often experience two concurrent emotions regarding learning assistance. They appreciate the help of learning assistance personnel to strengthen their academic skills, are grateful the institution admits them, and appreciate varied learning assistance activities. On the other hand, contact with these activities inadvertently leads to self-stigmatization because they recog­nize that not all students use the same learning assistance activities, especially developmental courses. Students enrolled in developmental courses recognize their academic profile is lower than that of other students at the institution. Diminished self-esteem and believing they do not belong often emerge. Some­times anger is directed at others and themselves, leading to self-sabotaging aca­demic behavior. This chain of events results in premature academic failure and departure from the institution (Higbee, Lundell, and Arendale, 2005).

When stigma attaches itself to language describing learning assistance and the students served by it, institutional leaders can lose interest and curtail these programs, especially at four-year institutions (Jehangir, 2002). Insufficient ser­vices diminish students’ academic success. A future blog entry will explore the question whether students’ rights are abridged by institutions’ failing to provide them the same services provided to students in previous generations?


  • Barefoot, B. O. (2003). Findings from the second national survey of rst-year academic practices. Brevard, NC: Policy Center for the First Year of College. Retrieved July 4, 2004, from
  • Higbee, J. L., Lundell, D. B., and Arendale, D. R. (Eds.). (2005). The General College vision: Integrating intellectual growth, multicultural perspectives, and student development. Min­neapolis: Center for Research on Developmental Education and Urban Literacy, General College, University of Minnesota.
  • Jehangir, R. R. (2002). Higher education for whom? The battle to include developmental education at the four-year university. In J. L. Higbee, D. B. Lundell, and I. M. Duranczyk (Eds.), Developmental education: Policy and practice (pp. 17–34). Auburn, GA: National Association for Developmental Education.
  • Martinez, S., Snider, L. A., and Day, E. (2003). Remediation in higher education: A review of the literature. Topeka: Kansas State Board of Education. Retrieved July 1, 2004, from
  • Pedelty, M. H. (2001). Stigma. In J. L. Higbee, D. B. Lundell, and I. M. Duranczyk (Eds.), 2001: A developmental odyssey. Warrensburg, MO: National Association for Developmen­tal Education.
  • Valeri-Gold, and others. (1997). Reflection: Experience commentaries by urban developmen­tal studies students. In J. L. Higbee, and P. L. Dwinell (Eds.), Developmental education: Enhancing student retention (pp. 3–18). Carol Stream, IL: National Association for Devel­opmental Education.