Push to Reform Remedial Education Raises Difficult Questions for Colleges

By Katherine Mangan  As the pressure on community colleges to accelerate or even eliminate remedial-education requirements intensifies, vexing questions are being asked about the impact such a shift could have on low-income and minority students.  Those who are the least prepared for college stand the most to lose from policies that push students quickly into college-level classes, according to some of the educators gathered here for the annual meeting of the American Association of Community Colleges. And those students tend, disproportionately, to be minority and poor.

But others argue that struggling students are ill served when they have to pass through a lengthy series of remedial courses before they can start earning college credit. Too often, they get discouraged and drop out before earning a single credit.  “For many of these students, a remedial course is their first college experience, as well as their last,” Stan Jones, president of the nonprofit advocacy group Complete College America, said on Monday during a session that delved into the politics behind developmental-education reform.  Community colleges have done a great job of diversifying their first-year classes, he said. “But if you fast-forward to graduation day and look at who’s on the stage, they’ve lost a lot of that representation.”

Mr. Jones, whose group is working with 32 states and the District of Columbia to advance its college-completion goals, added that there are “no good answers” to what happens to the least-prepared students “when they insist on wanting an academic program.” Many could benefit, he said, by enrolling in a short-term certificate program that offers job training, with remediation built in.  That sounds like tracking to some educators who remember the days when minority students were routinely routed to vocational courses. But with so many employers lining up to hire students with technical skills in fields like manufacturing and welding, “voc-ed” doesn’t carry the stigma it once did.

The session served as a sparring match of sorts between Mr. Jones and one of his most persistent critics, who says Complete College America exaggerates the shortcomings of remedial education and pushes simplistic solutions for complex problems.  The tone on Monday, however, was polite as the two, meeting for the first time, agreed on one key point: that most stand-alone remedial courses, by themselves, aren’t serving students well.  Hunter R. Boylan, director of the National Center for Developmental Education and a professor of higher education at Appalachian State University, said that if state legislators enacted one-size-fits-all models for streamlining remedial education, “there could be a lot of collateral damage” to minority and low-income students.  “If you don’t pilot innovations before mandating them statewide, the unintended consequences will come up and bite you,” he said. “If you pilot an innovation, you can work the bugs out before everybody has to live with it.”

‘Legislators Are Getting Anxious’
So why all the focus now on fixing remedial education? Several factors have created a “sense of urgency,” according to Matt Gianneschi, vice president for policy and programs at the Education Commission of the States, a national nonprofit group that tracks state policy trends.  The Common Core State Standards, a set of benchmarks that have been adopted by 45 states, will create a “common exit point and common entry point that has never existed before,” he said. The benchmarks will sharply delineate who is and isn’t ready for college, he said, and are likely to show that even fewer students are prepared.  That’s the last thing that two-year colleges want to hear at a time when President Obama and major foundations are calling for double-digit increases in their completion rates.  “It’s creating real urgency, and legislators are getting anxious,” said Mr. Gianneschi. As a result, many are no longer content to defer to faculty members on academic matters. “Many legislatures are now looking at ways they can force their priorities on the academy to get them to move in new directions.”

In Florida, they’re making remediation optional for most high-school graduates. In Connecticut, they’re limiting it to one semester, unless it’s embedded in a college-credit course. And in statehouses across the country, groups like Complete College America are urging lawmakers to replace stand-alone remedial courses with models that are offered either alongside or as part of college-credit classes.  In Texas, lawmakers seeking to cut remediation costs and put more students directly into college classes passed legislation, taking effect next year, that will bump many of the least-prepared students from remedial education to adult basic education.  Karen Laljiani, associate vice president of Cedar Valley College, said her college would be able to offer only two levels of remedial mathematics instead of four. Those at the upper end of the cutoff will be accelerated into credit courses, which has some faculty members worried about an influx of unprepared students.

Helping the Least-Prepared
The big question, though, is what will happen to students who used to place into the lowest levels of remedial math, some of whom might test at third-grade levels. Some might qualify for short-term, noncredit certificate programs that provide training for blue-collar jobs. And in some cases, remediation could be built right into the course.  The college may have to refer others to community groups that handle literacy and job training—a prospect that many community-college educators see as abandoning their open-door mission. Colleges that are already struggling with reduced enrollment also worry about the additional tuition revenue they’ll lose when students are moved into adult basic education, for which they typically don’t receive any state funds.

Among the questions that the changes are raising: What responsibility do community colleges have to educate students who are so far behind that they would struggle even in remedial classes? How do they structure those courses at a time when the emphasis is on accelerating students into college-level classes?  The head of the National Association for Developmental Education said her group was worried that colleges would start turning those least-prepared students away as pressure to push students through to completion intensified.  “If open-access institutions are forced to shut that door, it would be a dark day," said Patti Levine-Brown, a professor of communications at Florida State College at Jacksonville and former president of the National Association for Developmental Education. "It would go against everything we were created to do.”