Ready, Set, College


Mar 5, 2018

Professor teaching a college class

Photo by monkeybusinessimages/Getty Images

This commentary originally appeared on U.S. News & World Report on March 1, 2018.

Upon entering college, students probably assume they will be enrolling in college-level courses right away. But this is not the case for more than half of students new to community college.

These students find themselves needing to take a step back to enroll in developmental, or remedial, classes in reading, writing or math because the college has determined they do not have the skills to be successful in a college-level course. They are not “college ready.”

Students must pay the same tuition for developmental courses as they do for college courses, but receive no college credit. Many are required to take at least three such courses before their college education can really begin. Yet research shows that many students who enroll in developmental courses drop out before ever taking a college-level course.

And these development courses aren't cheap. The nation is investing at least $1 billion a year in them.

With so much money going toward developmental education, states and colleges have started to rethink their approaches. Some states have already passed legislation that dramatically reshapes or eliminates developmental education as we know it. In 2013, Florida became the first state to cut funding for developmental education. All college students in the state, regardless of whether they have been deemed college ready, can enroll in college-level courses. More recently, Tennessee and Texas passed legislation that accelerates students into college-level courses while providing some additional help on the side to catch the student up. (Colleges refer to this approach as a “corequisite.”) Other states and college systems are considering similar policies that mandate acceleration into college-level courses.

Policy changes that accelerate students into college-level courses may be a positive development. Emerging research indicates that in some cases such programs can help students succeed in college. Corequisites at Baltimore County Community College (PDF) were found to increase the likelihood of passing a college-level English course by nearly 30 percent. Students in Florida and Tennessee were more likely to pass a first college-level course after the states mandated acceleration-to-college-level course reforms.

However, some college administrators and faculty members have expressed concern that developmental education reform is moving too fast. They worry that students who are the furthest behind academically may not be ready for college-level courses and accelerating them too quickly may be setting them up for failure. It's not clear which approaches to acceleration are best or how to effectively implement them. Current research provides little guidance on these issues, but the U.S. Department of Education is funding large rigorous studies on major reforms of developmental education that will address many of these questions. They include a study examining corequisites in Texas a colleague and I are leading for the RAND Corporation and the American Institutes for Research. States that wait to pass reforms could benefit from the emerging lessons in this research.

What are the risks of moving too fast? Policymakers who pass sweeping legislation based on limited information run the risk of encountering several pitfalls:

Picking the wrong horse. Colleges are experimenting with a range of reforms to curriculum, instruction and support within developmental education that show promise. If policymakers don't have enough information to compare effectiveness or cost across a range of promising interventions, they may end up choosing something that doesn't give the best return on investment. By going “all in” on a single reform, states may limit the flexibility to change directions as evidence grows, and potentially stunt the growth of other promising reforms.

Assuming one size fits all. Sweeping policies that require all colleges to serve underprepared students with the same intervention are based on the assumption that everyone (and every college) can benefit from the same solution. That may not be the case. Little research has been done to determine whether students who are the furthest behind academically could be harmed by immediately taking a college-level course, and whether different colleges might benefit from different approaches.

Alienating the troops. Faculty are essential to the successful implementation of many developmental education reforms, since they have strong control over institutional offerings and substantial academic freedom within classrooms. Top-down mandates that are pushed too quickly and without sufficient engagement of faculty and college administrators could lead to distrust and create a combative atmosphere that could act as a barrier to successful implementation.

Leaving the job half done. When policies are rolled out quickly and accompanied by little funding or guidance on implementation, colleges may implement reforms in less-than-ideal ways that limit their potential for effectiveness. Little attention has been paid to understanding how to support successful implementation. If institutions fail to receive proper guidance on how to better implement programs, colleges may design ineffective models that have the potential to leave students worse off.

It may be too soon for states to put into place broad “one size fits all” policies that accelerate students into college courses. In the meantime, should states do nothing? Research that could offer guidance on the subject could take five to 10 years, denying many students the opportunity to benefit from reform. Instead, states could design policies that encourage institutions to experiment with promising approaches but provide the flexibility for colleges to roll the programs out slowly as the evidence regarding what works grows.

Texas recently addressed “one size fits all” concerns by encouraging institutions to experiment with a range of different corequisite models and allowing institutions to keep the least prepared students from immediately taking college-level courses. Texas is also allowing colleges to roll out corequisites gradually over three years so colleges can learn and make adjustments as they go. And the state has ordered up more research on the subject.

Are states moving too fast to mandate developmental education policy? It depends on the policy. As with Texas, states could help spur innovation and evidence-building by developing flexible policies that slowly encourage the adoption of promising reforms while allowing for experimentation and research. But with limited evidence on reforms that accelerate students into college-level courses, states would be wise to be cautious in considering a restrictive, one-size-fits-all approach.

Lindsay Daugherty is a policy researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.