Community colleges have long been seen as a good place for students to brush up on their skills before tackling college-level course work. The state legislatures in Ohio and Tennessee have recently decided to have public four-year institutions get out of the developmental ed game as much as possible, and leave those classes to the experts.
“It’s interesting to me that this is getting all this attention,” says Ron Abrams, president of the Ohio Association of Community Colleges, about a flurry of newspaper articles published in late October. “I think it’s fairly nebulous or informal at this point.”
He explains that Ohio has been moving in this direction for a number of years starting with common core curriculum for high schools and active participation in Achieving the Dream and Complete College American, among other initiatives.
The OACC has developed recommendations to help members become more efficient in their offerings. Community college leaders are discussing a variety of models with their four-year counterparts, including providing the class on the four-year campus or universities referring students to an area community college, then transferring back. “Ohio has put a lot of time and effort over the last six or eight years into developing a robust transfer and articulation system,” he says. “Part of that is an electronic transcript system so it is easy to exchange records.”
The weak economy and high tuition has contributed more to increased enrollments than the reforms being put in place. But he believes, as more students who start at community colleges successfully transfer to four-year institutions, the upward trend in enrollment will continue, especially because of a state-wide focus on improving educational attainment.
Efforts such as summer “boot camp,” modular courses, and better placement tests are all being put in place to help students succeed. “I think as long as you have adult students as part of the picture, the need for remedial courses will never go away,” Abrams says.
Five years ago, leaders in Tennessee began piloting new ways of teaching developmental classes to increase student success, shares Fannie Hewlett, provost and vice president for academic affairs at Chattanooga State Community College (Tenn.). Students progress at their own pace and move on to the next section once they show mastery. If they don’t finish a class in one semester, rather than starting from scratch, they pick up where they left off. “We have students who complete all the competencies in one semester,” she says. “We have a few who finished all the learning support and moved on to college level in the same semester.”
Adult learners might be willing to admit they aren’t ready for college level work, “but they don’t want to be stuck there for the rest of their lives,” she points out.
The Complete College Tennessee Act of 2010 mandated that community colleges be the primary source of developmental classes. The reform is still too new to provide significant data, explains Hewlett, who adds that “in terms of the initiative itself, I think it is the best thing that could happen. We have students who are deficient in basic skills and can get more bang for their buck at a community college rather than paying the high tuition at a university.”
While students who scored very poorly on placement exams must be referred to a community college, universities are working to keep borderline students on campus, she notes. For instance if a student scores just a point or two off on the ACT, he might be required to take additional lab time in conjunction with his course.
Meanwhile, articulation agreements were strengthened through the Tennessee Transfer Program, a proscribed curriculum for certain majors that allows students to transfer to a four-year institution as a junior.
More accurate testing, better course delivery, and strong articulation agreements are all keys to serving students. As Abrams says, “The sooner we can get them into college level courses, the sooner they succeed and graduate.”