The Case for Corequisites: What Are the Ingredients of Success?


May 23, 2018

Group of college students in class

Photo by JohnnyGreig/Getty Images

This commentary originally appeared on Center for the Analysis of Postsecondary Readiness on May 22, 2018.

Developmental education—coursework designed to help students who are not “college ready” in terms of math, reading, or writing skills—is a major part of the college experience for many students. More than two-thirds of community college students and 40 percent of four-year college students take at least one developmental education course. And states and colleges across the United States are experimenting with innovative approaches to developmental education to improve graduation rates for struggling students.

One alternative strategy for providing developmental education is called “corequisites,” where underprepared students entering college are placed directly into a college-level course and given additional support, such as tutoring or extended course time. In some colleges, corequisites are quickly replacing the traditional approach to developmental education, which required students to complete as many as three semester-long courses before entering a college-level course. Tennessee and Texas have passed laws requiring colleges to use corequisites for students, and other states are considering similar policies.

Early evidence suggests that corequisites hold promise as an approach to help underprepared students achieve greater levels of college success. At the Community College of Baltimore County, developmental education students who enrolled in corequisites were nearly 30 percent more likely to pass their first college-level course. In Tennessee (PDF), the percentage of students passing an introductory college-level course in their first year of college doubled after the state passed a law requiring all underprepared students to enroll in corequisites. As colleges and states increasingly turn to corequisites to help underprepared students catch up, the questions often asked include, “How can we make sure our corequisites are successful?” and “What are the main ingredients of success?”

To begin to answer those questions, over the past two years as Texas colleges have implemented corequisites in response to the new state requirement, my colleagues and I at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation spoke with faculty, administrators, and students in Texas about why they think corequisites work. Their perspectives suggest there are at least five reasons why corequisite models may be successful.

Corequisites Help Students Build Early Momentum Toward Earning a College Degree

Students in corequisites are required to enroll immediately in courses that earn them college credit, rather than having to first take two or more semesters of developmental education courses that do not count toward a degree. In addition, some corequisites require students to take fewer total hours of developmental education, which opens up their schedules for other college-level coursework, saving them time and tuition. Earning actual college credit in the first semester can help instill confidence in students, making them feel they belong in college and are on track to earn a degree. When students encounter challenges that might lead them to drop out, such as financial difficulties or family responsibilities, this feeling of making progress toward a degree may convince them to stay.

Corequisites Are Typically Designed to Align Developmental Education with College-Level Coursework and Increase Rigor of Instruction

Corequisites often aim to better align developmental education with college-level coursework, which makes the academic support more relevant to students and helps ensure that students are familiar with the content and type of assignments they will encounter in college-level courses. In addition, the tougher course material and expectations students face in the college-level courses (coupled with the additional support) can push students to rise to the challenge and can make students feel confident that they can handle college-level coursework.

Corequisites Often Tailor Instruction to the Individual Student

Many corequisite models are designed to provide more one-on-one instruction by reducing student-to-instructor ratios. In addition, many corequisites lack a structured curriculum and are instead focused on providing individualized support for the student's work in the more structured college-level course. Some corequisite models place a greater focus on initial needs assessment and tailor instruction through one-on-one interactions or software that adapts to meet individual needs. This individualized support can help ensure students are getting the support they need and can help them avoid relearning course material in which they are already proficient.

Some Corequisites Harness the Power and Knowledge of Student Peers to Support Success

In some cases, corequisites are designed to mix underprepared students with college-ready students, and working with higher-ability peers may help less prepared students catch up. Some corequisites also include learning communities, where underprepared students participate in the college course and receive academic support as a group, which allows them to build camaraderie and help each other conquer challenging coursework.

Some Corequisites Build Skills Important for Success That Go Beyond Math, Reading, and Writing

Some models of corequisites help build study skills through classroom activities or by requiring students to regularly attend office hours or tutoring. Many corequisites also try to build noncognitive skills, such as persistence and self-discipline, which can help set students up for success in college and beyond.

While more research is needed to conclusively determine what the key ingredients of success are for corequisites, understanding why practitioners and students think corequisites work is an important first step. Colleges across the United States are implementing a range of different corequisite models, and paying close attention to the key ingredients that make these programs work can help colleges choose models that are most likely to be effective.

States can support colleges designing corequisites by providing guidance on what works, and institutions can require faculty to design or adopt corequisite models that increase momentum toward a degree; improve instruction; harness the support of peers; and support the growth of academic, noncognitive, and study skills. Institutions can share tips for how best to incorporate these key ingredients.

Some of these ingredients of success may not just apply to corequisites. For example, many colleges are focused on increasing rigor in traditional developmental courses and have made efforts to better align the coursework with college-level courses. Individualized instruction is the goal for many faculty across developmental education and college-level courses, and many courses could benefit from the smaller course sizes and instructional techniques that corequisites use to enhance one-on-one instruction.

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