History of Learning Assistance and Developmental Education: 1970s through Mid-1990s Part One

The following is an excerpt from my monograph, Access at the Crossroads.  This excerpt explores the often unexplored, misunderstood, or simply ignored history of learning assistance and developmental education.  For more information about my publication, click on the box in the left column.

The fifth phase of postsecondary education history introduced new learning assistance non-credit-bearing activities and approaches, especially among pub­lic four-year institutions. A second feature of this phase was curtailment of remedial instruction that focused on high school students’ development of skills. Corresponding with that decrease, developmental courses that focused on the skill development required for college-level courses rapidly increased. Learning assistance built on past activities of tutoring and credit-bearing courses was replaced by learning assistance centers that served students from a wider range of academic ability.

New forms of learning assistance emerged to serve students with low aca­demic preparation or those who had previously earned low grades in a college course. Previously, nearly all students experienced learning assistance. As the learning assistance model and student body changed, some participated and some did not. The college student body became more diverse with regard to economic, cultural, and academic preparation. Learning assistance grew more quickly at community colleges because they enrolled the largest numbers of underprepared students. Those who participated, especially those forced to participate because of mandatory placement in remedial or developmental courses, were more stigmatized.

Learning Assistance

In the early 1970s, learning assistance centers (LACs) were introduced (Arendale, 2004; Christ, 1971). Frank Christ at California State University–Long Beach developed the first LAC (then called the learning assistance support system) and was the first to use the technical term in the professional literature (Aren­dale, 2004). White and Schnuth (1990) identified a distinguishing character­istic of LACs: their comprehensive nature and mission in the institution. Rather than an exclusive focus on underprepared students, LACs extended services for all students and even faculty members. The center naturally extended the classroom with enrichment activities for all students.

LACs, according to Christ, were comprehensive in their theoretical under­pinnings and services provided, compared with earlier reading labs and other forms of academic assistance. LACs shared a common mission: to meet the needs of students facing academic difficulty in a course and to provide supplemental and enrichment learning opportunities for any students at the institution. The reading labs worked only for students dealing with severe difficulty in reading. Students went to counseling centers only when they were having extreme aca­demic and emotional difficulties. The LACs served these students and the gen­eral student population as well. Therefore, no stigma was attached to the LACs. “[LACs] differed significantly from previous academic support services by intro­ducing concepts and strategies from human development, the psychology of learning, educational technology, and corporate management into an operational rationale specific to higher education; by functioning as a campus-wide support system in a centralized operational facility; by vigorously opposing any stigma that it was ‘remedial’ and only for inadequately prepared, provisionally admit­ted, or probationary students; and by emphasizing ‘management by objectives’ and a cybernetic subsystem of ongoing evaluation to elicit and use feedback from users for constant program modification” (Christ, 1997, pp. 1–2). Learning cen­ters avoided the remedial label that had stigmatized other forms of learning assis­tance. Although some institutions did not offer developmental courses, especially public four-year institutions, nearly all institutions accepted the challenge to offer learning assistance and enrichment services to all students.

Various factors encouraged the rapid development of learning centers, which (1) applied technology for individualized learning; (2) responded to lowered admission standards; (3) focused on cognitive learning strategies;

(4) increased student retention; and (5) were perceived to enrich learning for all students, regardless of their previous level of academic performance (Enright, 1975). The LAC was a catalyst for improved learning across the campus. Rather than continuing the previous practice of preparatory programs and remedial courses that were often outside the heart of the college, these centers contributed to the core institutional mission (Hultgren, 1970; Kerstiens, 1972). Faculty members often recognized these centers as extensions of the classroom and encouraged their use for deeper mastery of college-level mate­rial. “The resource center does not define the goals of the learning it supports; it accepts the goals of the faculty and the students” (Henderson, Melloni, and Sherman, 1971, p. 5). LACs were consolidated, and centralized operations were housed in a single location on campus. All students—not just those expe­riencing academic difficulty—benefited from a LAC’s services. LACs provided a model for learning and teaching centers established at some U.S. colleges beginning in the 1980s that assisted students and faculty members. Those cen­ters supported students’ mastery of rigorous academic content material and faculty professional development.

As mentioned, LACs were sometimes integrated into campuswide student retention initiatives. Organizations such as the Noel-Levitz centers have acknowledged a variety of learning assistance programs by recognizing increased student persistence (Noel-Levitz Center, 2010). A LAC that includes this objec­tive as part of its mission is at Lees-McRae College (Banner Elk, North Car­olina). The Division of Student Success (http://www.lmc.edu/sites/Acaemics/ StudentSuccess/) hosts traditional learning assistance services. It also provides additional services supporting student retention by housing the Office of Stu­dents with Disabilities, the First Year Experience Program, summer orienta­tion, and student retention services for students placed on academic probation. Learning assistance is bundled with other campus services and guided by the campus student retention plan. Sometimes these bundled efforts also support persistence in college majors in academically challenging areas such as science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (Seymour and Hewitt, 1997).

Developmental Education

Beginning in the 1970s, “developmental education” emerged as another term used to describe the field of learning assistance. This term borrowed concepts from the field of college student personnel. An underlying assumption was that all college students were developing throughout their college career. “The notion of developmental sequence is the kingpin of developmental theory.... A goal of education is to stimulate the individual to move to the next stage in the sequence” (Cross, 1976, p. 158). This perspective returned learning assis­tance to its historic roots by focusing on the entire student population.

Proponents of developmental education viewed it as a more comprehen­sive model because it focused on personal development of the academic and affective domains (Boylan, 1995b; Casazza and Silverman, 1996; Hashway, 1988; Higbee, 2005; Higbee and Dwinell, 1998). This value-added or talent development perspective assumed each student possessed skills or knowledge that could be further developed. Cross expressed the differences between reme­dial and developmental education in the following way: “If the purpose of the program is to overcome academic deficiencies, I would term the program remedial, in the standard dictionary sense in which remediation is concerned with correcting weaknesses. If, however, the purpose of the program is to develop the diverse talents of students, whether academic or not, I would term the program developmental. Its mission is to give attention to the fullest pos­sible development of talent and to develop strengths as well as to correct weak­nesses” (Cross, 1976, p. 31).

Access Programs

Thus far this review of learning assistance has focused on its use in the United States. Tutorial programs and the earlier dame schools were common learning assistance approaches in Europe. During this period, the United Kingdom developed a new approach for learning assistance called “access programs.”

Unlike the system in the United States, higher education in most other countries was coordinated, funded, and evaluated by the national government. The United Kingdom employed a different approach and terminology to meet the needs of students who were academically underprepared during the late 1970s. Two organizations in particular provided leadership—the European Access Network (http://www.ean-edu.org/) and the Institute for Access Stud­ies (http://www.staffs.ac.uk/institutes/access/). Most postsecondary institu­tions in the United Kingdom offered student services similar to those in the United States, including advising, counseling, disability services, orientation, mentoring, and tutoring (Thomas, Quinn, Slack, and Casey, 2003). Students with additional needs for developmental courses were required to complete a perquisite certificate offered through the access program.

One noticeable difference between the United States and the United Kingdom was length of academic terms of remedial or developmental courses.  The United Kingdom organized these courses into a unit called an “access pro­gram.” These programs were located in a postsecondary institution or an adult education center operated independently in the local community. Admission to a college or university depended on successful completion of the one-year program, which also resulted in a certificate of completion. Although some similarities existed between access programs in the United Kingdom and aca­demic preparatory programs in the United States, an important difference between the two countries was that U.S. colleges were more likely to admit students who had less academic preparation than were those in the United Kingdom. U.S. institutions were more willing to admit students to determine whether they could benefit from the college experience, while U.K. institu­tions demanded a greater likelihood of academic success before admission (Burke, 2002; Fulton and others, 1981).

The U.K. national government first initiated access programs in 1978. In addition to the proactive stance by the national government to require this pre­requisite learning venue for some college aspirants, several distinctive features of access programs contrasted with learning assistance in the United States:  They were recognized as an official route into further higher education. They met minimum standards set by the national government before access programs students were admitted to college. They targeted underrepresented students such as disabled learners, the unem­ployed, female returnees, minority ethnic groups, and those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. They were evaluated by the Quality Assurance Agency, a national government agency similar to the U.S. Government Accounting Office (Universities and Colleges Admission Service, 2003a, 2003b).

The British government created and provides ongoing evaluation for access programs, while in the United States they are generally under local institu­tional review. In the United States, the federal government is not a partner with learning assistance except for some competitive funds allocated through grant programs such as Title III, Title VI, and TRIO. It has been a missed opportunity for the national learning assistance professional associations to develop a formal, ongoing relationship with the U.S. Department of Educa­tion that could have led to more legitimacy, improvement, and perhaps more funding support.

Pilot Experiments with Outsourcing Developmental Courses

Forces coincided during the late 1980s through the 1990s to experiment with commercial companies’ provision of developmental college courses. Nation­wide, budget priorities shifted during the 1980s as state revenues previously devoted to public higher education began to erode because of escalating costs for state health care, transportation systems, prison facilities, and public K–12 education. With stagnant revenue growth and escalating operating costs, many colleges identified cost savings perceived to have little negative impact. A pop­ular approach was outsourcing services traditionally performed by college staff. Requiring highly competitive service bids and shifting escalating health insur­ance and other benefits (the fastest-growing component of labor costs) to sub­contractors would save significant costs for institutions. Numerous services were successfully outsourced: bookstores, food service, building maintenance, housing, and transportation services (Lyall and Sell, 2006). Another area for outsourcing was the delivery of developmental courses (Johnsrud, 2000).

A small handful of colleges contracted with Kaplan, Inc. (http://kaplan.com) and Sylvan Learning Systems (http://reportcard.sylvan.info/) in the mid-1990s to provide instruction in remedial and developmental mathematics, reading, and writing. Colleges that participated in the pilot program included Greenville Technical College (South Carolina), Columbia College Chicago (Illinois), Howard Community College and Towson University (Maryland), and several other unnamed proprietary schools. National interest and debate were generated through the pilot projects (Blumenstyk, 2006; Gose, 1997). Initial reports were mixed in Maryland’s pilot program with Sylvan (Maryland Higher Education Commission, 1997). Students paid a surcharge between two and four times the regular tuition rate to cover instructional and admin­istrative expenses and allow the companies to turn a profit.

Both Kaplan and Sylvan ended the pilot programs in agreement with the hosting institutions in the late 1990s. The reasons for their failure were pri­marily economic. The initial hope was to contain instructional costs and deliver improved student achievement and subsequent higher student reten­tion rates that would justify the annual contract cost, but it was unrealistic for a for-profit company to market a program for a lower cost than the ones that could be provided by the institution with the use of modestly paid adjunct instructors who could be assigned large classes (Blumenstyk, 2006; Boylan, 2002a). The same economic forces that were the catalyst for the experiment ultimately became the cause for this first wave of outsourcing to end. A sec­ond wave of outsourcing was expected to be more effective during the first decade of the twenty-first century as the focus changed from onsite develop­mental courses to online tutoring.

Read blog post for April 25 for Part Two of this history.