Five strategies to reform developmental ed


Over the past nearly three years, higher education observers have chronicled a litany of disturbing trends in community colleges and other broad access institutions: falling enrollment, widening disparities in outcomes by race, student and faculty disengagement exacerbated by remote instruction, and concern about the impact of learning loss. In this challenging time, how can community colleges deliver on their promise to students of an affordable pathway to a degree or credential and a fulfilling career?

Countering these disturbing trends will take significant investment in and restructuring of public higher ed. But among the uncertainties and frustrations, there is one area where both the need for change and the path forward are clear: developmental education.

Among students who started at public two-year colleges in 2015-16, more than half enrolled in developmental education courses in English or math. These courses – though required for many students for entry into college-level English and math – typically do not confer credit for graduation and transfer. Although students who succeed in these courses may have positive learning experiences, many rigorous studies have shown that this system creates a roadblock to college success. Perhaps more troubling is the evidence that students of color and low-income students have been more likely to have their college careers derailed because they were placed into lengthy prerequisite sequences of noncredit courses.

Reform to developmental education is widespread; in many states, these efforts have been spurred by legislative and policy changes first enacted in the 2010s. Yet even in contexts that have introduced alternative approaches, many students are still placed in traditional remedial education. According to a 2021 scan by the Education Commission of the States, nearly one third of states still have no policy related to the most common developmental education reforms. Researchers have studied the effectiveness of different dev ed reforms, leading to growing a body of evidence on what works to support student success.

Proven practices

In a new report, the Center for the Analysis of Postsecondary Readiness – a partnership of MDRC and the Community College Research Center – synthesized a decade of research on developmental education. We distilled the research into five evidence-based principles institutions can use to guide the implementation, expansion and refinement of developmental reform efforts:

  1. Grant students access to college-level math and English courses through reforms to assessment and placement practices and course structures.
  2. Provide targeted and tiered supports, such as corequisite support courses, tutoring and advising, to address students’ academic and nonacademic needs.
  3. Employ contextualized curriculum and student-centered pedagogy, which engages students in authentic tasks like those they will encounter throughout college.
  4. Use equity-minded approaches for design and implementation that meet the needs of Black, Latinx and other historically marginalized populations.
  5. Implement developmental education reforms alongside reforms that address multiple barriers to student success and span students’ entire time in college to improve long-term outcomes such as degree completion.

These principles reaffirm long-standing findings on developmental education. For example, research on traditional remedial education placement practices has long indicated that many students are “underplaced,” or required to take remedial courses they do not need. Changes to assessment and placement practices can allow more students to enroll in college-level courses directly.

One common strategy is to use multiple measures of college readiness, including high school GPA, instead of standardized test scores alone to place students into developmental or college-level courses. In two recent random assignment studies, students who were bumped up into college-level courses through multiple measures assessment were about 10 percentage points more likely to complete a college-level English or math course within three terms.

In another common approach, a student referred to developmental education enrolls in both a college-level course and a companion support course. Experimental studies of these types of corequisite models show positive effects on the percentage of students who complete college-level courses, the credits students earn, and in one study, on rates of graduation.

In many college contexts, more effective models, like corequisites, exist alongside multiple levels of traditional prerequisite remediation. And while outcome gaps by race have narrowed in states like California and Florida – early adopters of developmental education reform – research has shown that students from traditionally underserved groups are still more likely to be referred to prerequisite developmental education courses.

Maintaining rigor

Despite mounting concerns about learning loss during the pandemic, this is not the time to shy away from granting students access to college-level courses. To support students in these courses, evidence clearly shows the need for embedded, targeted, comprehensive and sustained supports. Rigorous studies of programs that offer multifaceted supports – including embedded tutoring and advising – have also been shown to improve outcomes for students assessed as having remedial needs. Notable examples include Washington’s I-BEST, which combines technical and basic skills instruction; CUNY Start, which provides intensive pre-enrollment courses; and CUNY’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs, which builds in layers of support for community college students.

To make sure Black and Latinx students can benefit from these reforms, colleges should take an inventory of classroom-, college-, system- and state-level practices and policies that are keeping underserved students from graduating, such as a reliance on high-stakes test scores for placement, implicit bias in course placement and unwelcoming classroom environments. At the classroom level, courses should offer engaging, culturally affirming content that builds a sense of confidence and belonging among low-income students and students of color.

In the midst of the pandemic recovery, more students than ever are questioning whether the years of their lives and the major financial investment that college requires are worth it. For those who are deemed unready for college, the question is even more critical. Developmental education reform, guided by these proven principles, ensures that students get a better start to their college career. 

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(From left) Erika B. Lewy is a research analyst at MDRC; Susan Bickerstaff is a senior research associate at the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University; and Katie Beal is an associate at MDRC.

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