Every year in the U.S., large numbers of college freshmen get a rude shock: they discover that they have to begin college by taking non-credit, remedial courses because they’re not ready for college work. This academic holding pattern creates a drag on motivation and, without a doubt, on wallets. Worse, it doesn’t work. Many students fail remediation courses. Some then give up and never continue their college studies. According to a Carnegie Foundation report, 60% of students entering community colleges in the United States are required to complete developmental courses and a staggering 70% of these students never complete the required mathematics courses, blocking their way to higher education credentials and with them, a wide array of technical and related careers. Traditionally, only 5% of students earn college math credit within a year of continuous enrollment.
These failure rates for college remediation are so severe that tweaking won’t help. The entire approach needs a major overhaul. Remediation assumptions, curricula and assessments are all in need of rethinking.
College remediation was developed some 40 years ago to provide struggling students with more time to reach entry level college standards. It was designed as a sequence of increasingly challenging math and English courses. The remedial course of study was offered as a temporary off-ramp on the road to a certificate or degree, still seen as part of the pathway to college success. By now, however, it is clear that the off-ramp should be marked “exit only.” Only the rare remediation program offers a route to college. Originally meant to help underserved students succeed in college, remediation has morphed into an impediment to full college access.
Students’ first college experience should be in a credit bearing, “gateway” course, such as freshman and sophomore courses students must complete prior to declaring a major subject concentration. This should hold true whether their academic preparation has been weak or strong. The college and its faculty should expect to find any number of students who will need significant amounts of support in order to be successful in a gateway course. Yet, if there is any question about a student’s readiness for the college level work, colleges typically play it safe by placing that student into a remedial course.
This approach tends to backfire. Students who thought they were college ready become discouraged. Many never find their way back to the gateway course or curricula. They are stuck in remediation. What can be done? Institutions should change the questions they ask during the placement process. Instead of asking why a student should be placed in a gateway course, we should argue for why they shouldn’t be there.
Alternatives are possible. The idea is to accelerate rather than remediate. In other words, it’s more effective to place students immediately in credit bearing courses, simultaneously providing extra support that ensures they can keep up.
The following two approaches are successful in moving students from remediation back to a college track. They demonstrate how students who are assessed below college-ready standards can–with targeted mentoring–enter, persist and ultimately graduate from college.
College and High School Faculty Provide Team Support through Shadow Courses and Extended Time. In the Shadow Course approach students receive remedial instruction while also enrolled in a traditional single-semester gateway course. Remedial support is delivered through an aligned, remedial course or through non-course based options such as required participation in self-paced instruction in a computer lab or mandatory tutoring. The simplest strategy that works is extending instructional time after class, by 45 minutes. Another is to add additional hours to a course, raising it from three hours per week to five. These time extensions give students more opportunities to master course content and concepts with which they have struggled. The pass rate in these gateway courses for students who have received this kind of support is double the pass rate of students who did not receive any targeted mentoring.
One-Year Course Pathway. Students with more significant remedial needs benefit from more robust instruction and enhanced learning supports. This takes the form of a one-year, two-semester course sequence in which students stretch what is typically a one-semester course into a full year.
For example, the Carnegie Foundation’s pathways courses deliver remedial instruction in a just-in-time manner over the course of a year. Carnegie convenes networks of faculty members, researchers, designers, students, and content experts in the creation of two new pathways, one in statistics and the other in quantitative reasoning. It is Carnegie’s belief that, “students will have greater motivation to succeed and persist if their mathematics study is engaging, meaningful, relevant and useful.” In its first two years, over 50% students enrolled Carnegie’s Pathways achieved college math credit within a year.
Additional strategies include acceleration, co-teaching, mentoring, and variations on the shadow courses described above. Implementing any of these strategies is a risk and initially cost more. Yet the return on investment pays off when students stay in college, moving away from remedial classes and fully entering the college track.