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Eying graduation, colleges revamp remedial programs

Peter Adams, center, with students at the Community College of Baltimore County, which has pioneered remedial reforms.

Remedial programs across the country are getting overhauled by educators and lawmakers hoping to keep more two- and four-year college students on track for graduation.

The changes come as research shows that while many community college students are made to take—and pay for—at least one remedial course before they start compiling credits, those who take the courses are more likely to leave school without earning a diploma.

“For too many students, college begins and ends in remedial courses,” says Tom Sugar, vice president of Complete College America, an organization that works with lawmakers to enact policies aimed at increasing college graduation rates.

“The more gaps you have between non-credit courses and credit courses, the more likely kids will leave class altogether,” Sugar says.

Nearly two-thirds of all community college students are referred to “developmental education,” typically in English or math, says Tom Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center at Teacher’s College, Columbia University.

But less than half of the students complete the remedial class, and that number drops sharply for students who are forced to take more than one. The completion rate for students taking three classes, for instance, is in the single digits, Bailey says.

A few states and more than 100 community colleges have shifted to what Bailey calls the “co-requisite model,” allowing students to enroll in credit-level courses at the same time they are doing remedial work.

“It allows students to accumulate college credit, to move forward and not feel like they’re marking time. But it recognizes their skills are weak and they need some additional assistance,” Bailey says.

Florida and Indiana are moving toward co-requisite models and Connecticut may soon follow, Sugar adds.

The model originated with the Community College of Baltimore County’s Accelerated Learning Program, which began in 2007 after educators there spent more than a decade researching why traditional remedial courses weren’t working , says the program’s director, Peter Adams.

Here’s how it works: A student who needs remediation signs up for credit-level English 101. The class will be made up of nine other remedial students and 10 college-ready students. The college-ready students leave class after the first hour, while the remedial students have a second hour of class (after a 10-minute break) with the same teacher, Adams says.

“The idea that you bring in developmental students who are weak at writing, weak at math, and put them with a bunch of other students who are weak at writing or math is bad,” Adams says. “If you put them with stronger students, they’ll learn a lot from that experience.

“Anything you can do to make students feel like they are really in college will make it more likely they will stay,” he says.

The remedial students can also learn other skills—such as how to use the library or how to work with instructors and professors—from the college-level students, Adams adds.

A 2012 Community College Research Center study of the program found that Accelerated Learning students performed better in college-level English 101 and 102 and were more likely to return the school the following year. Nearly three-fourths of Accelerated Learning students passed the remedial class and English 101 while only 33 percent of regular remedial students passed both, the study found.

In a merger of two higher education trends, San Jose State University created two “massive, open, online courses,”—better known as MOOCs—for remedial students. The university worked with online course-designer Udacity to offer two remedial math courses this spring, says Pat Lopes Harris, San Jose State’s media relations director.

Each of the classes, which were designed by San Jose State professors, had 150 students. The remedial classes will be offered again this summer, Harris says.

“We don’t have any data on this yet as to how students performed,” she said. “What we did see preliminarily, half-way through the term, was that there was a mixture of students taking these classes. Some of them were our own regular, matriculated students, and some were from off-campus.”

Other reforms are taking into account students’ study objectives, says Bailey. In Virginia, students may not have to take an entire course in remedial math if they have only a few weaknesses that can be addressed by shorter sessions.

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