Fixing Developmental Education

This collection of innocuous prerequisites generally went unnoticed and was conceptually unrelated to degree completion. In recent years, however, the number of students enrolled in developmental education courses combined with the cost of offering them, has demanded more attention.
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Young woman lying on floor by book shelves, reading, side view
Young woman lying on floor by book shelves, reading, side view

It is clear that figuring out developmental education in colleges and universities across the country is as important as any other issue related to improving the percentage of Americans with a college degree. For many years this collection of innocuous prerequisites generally went unnoticed and was conceptually unrelated to degree completion. In recent years, however, the number of students enrolled in developmental education courses combined with the cost of offering them, has demanded more attention. More than half of students in the nation's community colleges and nearly 70 percent of students attending Minority-Serving Institutions require at least one developmental education course en route to a college degree. College level math and writing represent the most prolific skill deficits students bring to campus.

The national dialogue exclaiming that developmental education programs do not work is not only a false declaration but a futile approach to improving student persistence and ultimately degree completion. A number of states have withdrawn support for developmental education courses based on the notion that they are expensive, ineffective, and do not belong in four-year colleges and universities. In a few instances, state scholarship programs no longer allow funds to be used to take developmental education courses. Improving degree completion, however, will require institutions to serve students more effectively and a policy environment that does not marginalize developmental education or attempt to relegate it to community colleges.

The following are three sizable challenges educators and institutions must address in order to realize systematic improvements in developmental education courses. Each will significantly contribute to persistence and graduation.

Reliable Diagnostics: Determining which students should be placed in developmental education courses is generally based on standardized test scores (ACT or SAT) or placement exams administered by campuses before students can enroll. Today, many educators question the reliability of the exams and the way they are generally administered. The result, in some cases, is that students are misplaced. Those who should not be placed in developmental education courses are, and some who should be placed in them evade detection subsequently taking classes they are not ready to pass. Equally challenging is that students who fall below the minimal score on placement exams have varying levels of ability. Those who barely missed passing the exam are often placed in the same courses as those who will require intense subject remediation. Today, higher education uses blunt tools for placing students in developmental education courses and a fairly blunt tool for remediating them once there. Diagnostic improvements are a critical component for enhancing the effectiveness of developmental education programs. The ability to more precisely identify a student's academic needs and match them with the appropriate high quality treatment should be the standard.

Determining Effective Treatments: At present we have much more information about what does not work in developmental education programs than we have about what does. Public discourse that highlights the shortcomings of developmental education has led to a variety of novel solutions. Given the placement challenges and concerns about instructional quality in these courses, there is a good deal of consensus that simply placing students in a 16-week pre-requisite is not the best method. There are any number of program designs, theories, and practices currently in play. Some involve accelerated courses, computer-assisted instruction, prescribed course sequences, tutoring supplements, the use of math labs, peer grouping, or the option to test out of a developmental course at any time during a semester. Less clear is which of these methods are most effective, for which courses, and for which groups of students. Developmental education courses are too expensive for students and too costly for institutions to not have a better sense of which program models are most effective and why.

Improving Data Capacity and Analysis: Most campuses serving a high percentage of students in developmental education courses are capable of detailing how many are enrolled in these courses, how many pass, and the number that subsequently enroll in entry-level college courses. What they are unable to do, in most cases, is explain why some students are successful and such a high percentage are not. Campuses must be committed to developing rich descriptive data and establishing causal inferences that associate program attributes with student performance. Instructional quality, program design, support services, or institutional policies are all important variables that need to be understood in relationship to student performance. Being able to answer questions, with defensible evidence, about why students succeed or fail does requires an institutional commitment and, for some, investment. The returns, however, ensure that precious resources are not wasted running programs that do not serve students well. Better information is something that proponents and detractors of developmental education should be calling for.

Despite the current challenges related to developmental education programs, the higher education community will remain married to this issue (for better or for worse). There are simply too many students who rely on these courses in pursuit of a college degree. Too many to ignore and too many to sentence to community colleges that often have even fewer resources to address the related challenges. Some policymakers have taken the position that taxpayer dollars should not be used teaching something in the university that students should have learned in high school. Polity aside, this position does not account for the American reality. The fastest growing groups of young people in the country are more likely to be an ethnic minority, attend K-12 schools that underprepared them for college, and arrive to campuses in need of developmental education courses. And, numerically we must graduate a much higher percentage of them if there is any chance of achieving the goal of being the most educated nation in the world.

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