History of Learning Assistance and Developmental Education: Mid-1940s through 1970s

The following is an excerpt from my monograph, Access at the Crossroads.  Click on the box in the left column to learn more about the monograph. The history of learning assistance and developmental education is too often overlooked or ignored.  This is important for today's policy discussions and decisions impacting academic access and support programs for college students.

The fourth phase of learning assistance history occurred throughout the mid­dle of the twentieth century. Learning assistance dramatically expanded to meet increased needs resulting from escalating college enrollment. Building on past practices of tutoring and remedial courses, learning assistance expanded services to more students through compensatory education and learning assistance centers. Stigma heightened for learning assistance partici­pants because of increased stratification of academic preparation among enter­ing students. Although previously enrollment in remedial classes was common for most college students (Brubacher and Rudy, 1976; Maxwell, 1979), it was no longer the case. Entering students from privileged backgrounds were better prepared academically than the new first-generation college and economically disadvantaged students who were entering postsecondary education for the first time. Stigma began to attach to the students who enrolled in the reme­dial and subsequent developmental courses by those who did not need to do so. Well-prepared privileged students did not need extensive learning assis­tance during college as had the previous generation of college students. The new students, especially those from rural communities and urban centers and many historically underrepresented students of color, had uneven access to such education. This dichotomy of experiences created a perception that devel­opmental courses were needed primarily for students of color. Actually, two-thirds of students enrolled in these courses were white, but it is true that students of color are twice as likely at two-year colleges and three times more likely at four-year institutions to enroll in the courses in relationship to their proportion of the overall population of all college students (Boylan, Bonham, and Bliss, 1994).

Increased Federal Involvement

Federal involvement intensified during this time with increased financial sup­port, legislative oversight, and creation of new college access programs. Sig­nificant events occurred: the GI bill, expansion of civil rights, and equal opportunity legislation. The National Center for Education Statistics (1993) tracks a variety of educational activities, including rates of college enrollment. A retrospective in trends over a period of 120 years revealed an increase in col­lege enrollment. College enrollment increased significantly during the 1950s, as the college enrollment rate rose from 15 to 24 percent among eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds over that decade. During the 1960s, the rate increased to 35 percent, finally reaching 45 percent in the 1970s. Much of this later growth was the result of increased enrollment by adult and part-time students, who required learning assistance support different from their peers (National Center for Education Statistics, 1993).

Colleges were increasingly asked to provide services for older students who often faced concurrent challenges of failure to enroll in college-bound cur­riculum while in high school and the interruption of education between high school and college as a result of entering the workforce, raising a family, or enlisting in the military. Academic skills often atrophied during the interven­ing years. These students often brought multiple needs that required academic support and enrichment. Many college preparatory programs expanded as a result. A national survey (Barbe, 1951) documented the growth of reading clinics created to meet the increased number of students academically under-prepared for college-level work. Another resource introduced beginning in the 1950s was counseling services in remedial programs (Kulik and Kulik, 1991).

Another catalyst for change was the civil rights movement, manifested in the early 1960s in various forms that resulted in major societal changes of infrastructure—including in learning assistance programs (Chazan, 1973; Clowes, 1980). The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other programs of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society focused on increasing opportunities for peo­ple of color as well as those people historically excluded from many of society’s benefits. Learning assistance services, especially remedial and devel­opmental courses, took on additional tasks. Their responsibility expanded beyond preparation of students for college-level courses, and the learning assis­tance field received an indirect mandate to serve as a major resource to enable postsecondary institutions to increase dramatically their enrollments by stu­dents who had been excluded before—the poor, students of color, and students from families that had never completed college. This informal social responsibility by the learning assistance community would overwhelm its capacity to meet the need as a result of insufficient funding and a lack of trained personnel to provide the services. Although not formally stated in offi­cial documents, college learning assistance programs were expected to com­pensate for inadequate secondary schools, especially in rural and urban centers, and assist students to quickly develop college-level skills in an academic term or two. Overcoming an inadequate elementary and secondary education with limited time, resources, and personnel was a nearly impossible task. The field is still informally held to these expectations today and contributes to criticism for not achieving desired student outcomes.

Compensatory Education

Deep-rooted social problems influencing many students of color and those from low socioeconomic backgrounds created the need for a new type of edu­cation program. During the early 1960s, national civil rights legislation estab­lished the Office of Compensatory Education in the U.S. Office of Education (Chazan, 1973). The civil rights movement chose a different perspective of learning assistance. “Compensatory education” remedied a previous state of discrimination: “Compensatory education in higher education would take the form of remediation activities such as preparatory and supplementary work . . . all with a program to provide an enriching experience beyond the academic environment to counterbalance a nonsupportive home environment” (Clowes, 1980, p. 8).

Some believed environmental conditions, often induced by poverty, were responsible for students’ poor academic achievement. Compensatory educa­tion defined itself as “those efforts designed to make up for the debilitating consequences of discrimination and poverty” (Frost and Rowland, 1971,

p. vii). President Johnson’s War on Poverty also targeted the negative outcomes caused by these environmental conditions. Compensatory education provided an improved home environment that had been identified as a significant fac­tor for future academic achievement (Maxwell, 1997; Ntuk-Iden, 1978). This paradigm shift from remediating deficits of individual students to remedying deficits of the learning environment and the community required different learning assistance interventions. The response was systemic and involved interventions beyond the provision of tutorial programs and remedial credit courses. Such compensatory programs required significant federal oversight, funding, and management.

New compensatory education programs such as TRIO and other Equal Opportunity programs originated in the 1969 civil rights legislation. Accord­ing to federal legislation, student eligibility for these new programs required them to meet one or more of the following criteria: (1) neither parent com­pleted college; (2) an economically disadvantaged background; or (3) an eli­gible disability. The TRIO college access programs became an official entitlement for a federally defined population based on historical underrep­resentation in postsecondary education or physical disability (Kerstiens, 1997).

Compensatory education also included traditional approaches to learning assistance—tutoring, counseling, and remedial credit courses—along with a new package of activities including educational enrichment and cultural expe­riences (Clowes, 1980). Compensatory education leaders distanced themselves from traditional learning assistance activities, however, to avoid the stigma associated with those programs. They positioned compensatory education as creating a new learning culture for students who had suffered historic dis­crimination and had been underserved by their previous education (Clowes, 1980).

Compensatory education was based on the public health model rather than the medical model (Clowes, 1980). The model expanded beyond the indi­vidual to the surrounding academic and economic environment that affected students. Identifying student deficits, providing remedial assistance, and adding supplemental enrichment activities were essential for compensatory education. In addition to a curriculum that included remedial courses, com­pensatory education also sought to immerse students in a new learning cul­ture that included enrichment activities.

Therefore, compensatory education is not identical to traditional learning assistance approaches. It provides a specific response to a new student popu­lation in postsecondary education. Added to its mission was the cultural enrichment of students whose impoverished backgrounds mandated a differ­ent approach. Rather than changing the physical surroundings in which stu­dents lived and attended school, compensatory education sought to create a separate and enriched learning community for these students. Another approach to create a supportive learning environment for historically under­represented college students took place in the junior and community colleges.

Federally funded compensatory education programs were a response by the national government to historic injustices. These new programs were accountable, monitored, and funded by the federal government. They were a direct intervention into individual postsecondary institutions. Only approved students could be served through the programs to ensure that the local insti­tution did not divert funds for other purposes. This direct and narrow focus met the needs of many who were served (Grout, 2003). It also became an enormous missed opportunity that not only marginalized the students served and the compensatory programs but also failed to meet the larger issue.

The campus environment and allocation of resources also contributed to lower performance by historically excluded students of color, poor students, and first-generation students. The federal response could have been to hold postsecondary institutions accountable for outcomes of all students. Instead, the response was to create small communities that operated in the larger insti­tutions that could only serve about 10 percent of eligible students (Nealy, 2009; Swail and Roth, 2000). States could also have joined this demand for accountability and made college funding contingent on improved student outcomes, including persistence toward graduation, for not only the overall student population but also for demographic groups such as those from low socioeconomic status, students of color, and first-generation students.

The British provide a model for this type of accountability for higher edu­cation. Their “widening participation” initiative holds colleges accountable for student outcomes, among them graduation rates for all students, including those historically neglected (Higher Education Funding Council for England, 2006). Rather than national funds provided for narrowly targeted populations and accompanying services, the funds are for initiatives that result in changes in the campus culture and are critical elements of the campus strategic goals (Higher Education Funding Council for England, 2006). The demographics of the entering student body are to be reflected in the graduating students, or part of the annual appropriation by the national government is subject to with­holding. This type of financial accountability as well as supplemental funding from the government for efforts at widening participation could have been implemented in the United States as well.

Instead, the federal government informally endorsed the marginalization of first-generation, economically disadvantaged, and disabled students by pro­viding programs for only a small portion of those who were eligible. These students were identified as different from the others and provided separate programs to serve them, and the participants as well as the service providers suffered from the ensuing stigma while the institutional culture remained essentially unchanged.

Role of the Junior and Community Colleges

When junior and community colleges expanded in the early 1900s, the entry-level test scores for college applicants were moderately lower than those for four-year institutions (Koos, 1924). This situation dramatically changed in the 1960s as open-door admissions policies at two-year colleges brought many students to postsecondary education that formerly entered the workforce immediately after high school. Junior colleges expanded their mission beyond only preparing students for successful transfer to senior institutions. Com­munity colleges retrained their transfer function and expanded their mission to serve students who were academically underprepared and those enrolled in new certificate vocational programs that served the local community. This shift in focus led the majority of these junior colleges to rename themselves com­munity colleges because of their expanded vision and mission of service (Cohen and Brawer, 2002).

Increased pressure was placed on community colleges in the 1970s and 1980s as four-year institutions recruited more college-bound students to replace ballooning enrollments from returning war veterans (who used the fed­eral GI bill) and the subsequent postwar baby boom. Senior institutions recruited more academically able students and left community colleges to seek more students who were academically underprepared, dramatically increasing the need for comprehensive learning assistance centers and remedial or devel­opmental community college courses. An unanticipated result of this shift in the academic profile of students enrolled at senior institutions created a false perception that little need existed for learning assistance. The opposite occurred at four-year institutions as faculty perceived, wrongly, that new stu­dent admits were more academically able to master difficult course material (Hankin, 1996). The gap between student preparation and faculty expecta­tions required a different form of learning assistance, leading to the creation of noncredit learning assistance centers and the decline of remedial credit courses.

New populations of nontraditional students joined traditional-aged stu­dents. Expanded federal financial aid through the GI bill and federal civil rights legislation that created compensatory programs such as TRIO fueled an increase in enrollments. The rapidly growing community colleges became the primary offerors of credit-bearing remedial and developmental courses. The core mission of two-year colleges often included providing services for students who had been identified as academically underprepared, but no cor­responding statement was made about serving these students in most public four-year colleges and universities. This lack of official institutional priority for serving students that were academically underprepared in one or more aca­demic content areas served as a catalyst for the shift in credit-bearing reme­dial and developmental offerings from four-year to two-year institutions. This shift contributed to the attachment of further stigma to remedial and devel­opmental courses.

Before this shift occurred in the 1990s, however, many college academic preparatory services at four-year and two-year institutions had responded to the new influx of students by increasing the comprehensiveness of their learn­ing services (Boylan, 1988; Boylan, 1995a). In the mid-1970s, nearly 80 per­cent of all postsecondary institutions provided academic enrichment and support programs (Roueche and Snow, 1977). Although this rate was nearly the same as the late 1880s, services provided by these programs were more comprehensive, extensive, and coordinated than earlier ones.

Almost half of first-time community college students in the late 1960s and 1970s were underprepared for college-level courses in one or more academic areas. Students often enrolled in one or more developmental courses (Roueche and Roueche, 1999; McCabe and Day, 1998). Although college-bound stu­dents in high school enrolled in college preparatory courses, they may have selected the wrong ones or the quality of them may have been insufficient for success in first-year, graduation-credit college courses (Horn, Chen, and MPR Associates, 1998). Frustration with the inability to predict student success cre­ated great frustration for all stakeholders involved in the academic enterprise: “The open door often turned into a revolving door, with students dropping out and stopping out regularly. This led to a highly charged debate about the lowering of standards, often followed by the call to raise admission standards and close the doors of opportunity to the thousands of prospective new stu­dents” (Casazza and Silverman, 1996, p. 28).

Sometimes change occurs because of intentional choices and visionary lead­ership by a few individuals. Other times it occurs through reaction to the sur­rounding environment. Learning assistance during this phase changed because of the latter reason. A major variable that affected U.S. postsecondary educa­tion in the mid-1900s was rapid expansion of the student body and failure by many institutions to provide sufficient learning assistance services to support their academic success. As a major influx of new students came into college, the previous learning assistance activities were unable to meet the need. For example, only a fixed number of counseling appointments were available weekly, as few colleges were able or willing to hire more staff. The same was true for faculty teaching remedial courses. Newer, more flexible and scalable learning assistance systems were created. These new services employed student and paraprofessional staff along with the professional staff, prompting creation of new learning assistance approaches in the fifth phase of higher education history.