Commentary: Developmental ed will remain a hot topic

Two phenomena have kept development education front and center in higher education: expanded access to college and a new focus on student success.

Expanded access to college has spurred more people to go to college, with more of them being non-traditional. Meanwhile, a new emphasis on student success means preparing more students to do college-level work. Whether you call it remediation, college readiness, skills building, learning support or educational opportunity support, developmental education is consistently on the “in list” for improvement and increasing reform. It dovetails into one of the American Association of Community Colleges’ 21st-Century Commission recommendations to “dramatically improve college readiness.”

It is not coincidence that an all-day U.S. Education Department (ED) meeting last week on the strategies and resources to remedy remediation was sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is focused on improving developmental education. The meeting began with a review of some of the promising approaches, such as the CUNY Accelerated Study in Associate Programs model, early assessment while in high school and program redesign, such as co-requisite courses used in several states. Participants also discussed the president’s pitch for a Pell Grant bonus to encourage full-time enrollment and year-round Pell, as well insight from the federal government and philanthropic organizations on funding opportunities and programs for continued developmental education reform.

The road to reform

The bulk of the event comprised presentations from practitioners and researchers on promising practices and findings on student outcomes, as well as the cost of various developmental education approaches.

One topic of particular interest was on the number of traditional college-age students from middle- and high-income backgrounds attending four-year institutions who are taking remedial courses. Who knew the extent of the financial cost to students and federal student aid of taking remedial courses? Who knew how difficult it is to scale available models to improve the effectiveness of developmental education?

But the panel that left the most profound impression was that of college students from institutions running the gamut, from an open-admissions community college to a highly selective private four-year institution that had students needing developmental education. Their stories went beyond what courses they took, whether they thought the assessment tool was accurate, and whether they believed that subsequently they were more prepared to take college courses. The students expressed how they felt about being labeled a development education student, the stigma attached to it, and how faculty and other college staff treated them. Calling developmental education by another name, such as “education opportunity program” would not make a difference, said one student. Surprisingly, most of them agreed that taking the courses helped them — perhaps not in the same way — to better prepare for college work.

Another focus at the ED meeting was the importance of a holistic approach to developmental education, from student assessments to the actual remediation process. A single test with cut off scores doesn’t cut it. Taking cookie-cutter courses without comprehensive and integrated supports also are inadequate. Teachers matter; evaluation of what works matters.

Policy matters

Development education is not only time consuming, but costly. And, there is no consistent definition of development education.

  • The 113 community colleges in California that experience 80 percent of their students taking at least one development education course receive $90 million for development education. But unlike the previous institutional autonomy approach to development education, these funds come with strings attached, namely having a menu of allowable areas for which to use the funds.
  • Tennessee used a federal grant to conduct a quasi-experiment on the effectiveness of a computer-based math course in a few colleges that subsequently was adopted state-wide.
  • Only a handful of states have alignment between high school and postsecondary institutions in what constitutes college readiness.
  • Higher education institutions are not held accountable for the progress of developmental education students, which is complicated by the reality that today’s students attend multiple institutions.

Community colleges have made great strides, as evidenced by many examples given at this meeting and those captured in AACC’s 21st-Century Implementation Guide. ED’s new toolkit should also shed light on effective approaches for institutions. The department also plans to soon release another report on the challenges and strategies for developmental education reform.

About the Author

Jolanta Juszkiewicz
is director of policy analysis at the American Association of Community Colleges.