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Solving the remediation riddle in higher ed

A variety of strategies prepare students for college coursework more quickly, leading to greater success
University Business, April 2016
  • One step at a time: Students at Hillsborough Community College in Florida can take  modules—rather than full-semester courses—to master specific skills they need to reach credit-bearing classes.
  • The Borough of Manhattan Community College compresses a few levels of remedial instruction into a single course so students can progress more quickly.
  • Remedial students at California State University, San Bernardino attend free mandatory summer courses and live on campus.
  • Students in the Borough of Manhattan Community College’s “Quantways” program show pass rates around 70 percent—double the rate of the school’s traditional remedial programs.

Two- and four-year colleges across the nation have plugged the black hole of remediation with a range of programs designed to keep students enrolled while steering them toward greater levels of success.

Some institutions have upgraded their assessment process to ensure incoming students take placement exams seriously and aren’t assigned a higher (or lower) level of remediation than necessary. Another growing strategy, the bridge program, pushes students to bring their academic skills up to par during the summer before entering college.

For the fully enrolled, corequisite courses let students complete remedial work at the same time they pay for and earn credits in first-year classes. Modular courses let students brush up on just the skills they need, rather than taking an entire remedial class.

Ultimately, the mission has shifted from the old college-readiness approach that assigned remedial courses before students could gain any credit. Today’s highly targeted, retention-centered remediation models aim to keep students motivated and to propel them through courses most relevant to their majors.

“What we were doing before wasn’t working,” says Mary Fulton, a senior project manager and policy analyst with Education Commission of the States. “Greater emphasis is now being placed on whether students enroll and complete credit-bearing courses. This step forward is only going to continue, and probably will result in much more positive results.”

Acceleration revs up retention

Students in corequisite courses succeed in credit-bearing introductory (or “gateway”) courses more than 60 percent of the time, compared to remedial students’ 22 percent pass rate, according to a January report released by Complete College America, one of the model’s most ardent proponents.

Key concept in remediation reform

Early-college high schools: High school students enroll in college courses to earn post-secondary credits and high school diplomas at the same time. This gives students a jumpstart on the rigors of higher education and saves on tuition.

Corequisite students also progress more quickly, often in a single semester. Indiana’s Ivy Tech Community College system began offering corequisite courses in 2011.

“Our pass rates for those gateway courses were just abysmal,” says Saundra King, assistant vice president for remediation and innovation. Now, 64 percent of corequisite students complete an introductory math class in just one semester; 55 percent pass a gateway course in English.

Ivy Tech’s corequisite students enroll concurrently in a “zero”-level remedial course and a credit-bearing introductory-level class, where they study in a cohort alongside “program-ready” students. The content in the lower-level course is aligned to the introductory class.

In West Virginia, 64 percent of students required remedial education and just 13 percent of those students were graduating from the state’s nine community colleges within six years. In math, only 12 percent of remedial math students would ever pass a college-level course. Since introducing corequisite courses about a year ago, 62 percent of remedial math students are passing college-level math in the first semester, says Sarah Tucker, chancellor of the West Virginia Council for Community and Technical College Education.

“I’ve never seen changes that dramatic in higher ed before,” she says. “Students who need remedial math typically have never been very good at math. So, having to pass just one college-level math course is a huge motivational factor.”

To speed up the remediation process, the Borough of Manhattan Community College in New York City compresses several levels of instruction into a single course, an approach administrators call “reducing the sequence.” A student who needs to catch up may face three semesters of basic math and basic algebra. “Our goal is to get that down to one semester,” Provost Karrin Wilks says.

So far, about 3,000 students have gone through the compressed “Quantways” program, with pass rates hovering around 70 percent—double the rate of the college’s traditional remedial programs.

Key concept in remediation reform

Corequisite courses: Students take remedial courses at the same time they take credit-bearing introductory classes alongside college-ready students, often receiving extra tutoring help.

At Hillsborough Community College in Florida, students who fall just sort of “college-ready” on placement exams won’t have to go through an entire semester of remediation. They can take one or more five-week “modules” to master needed skills such as fractions or percentages, says James Wysong, the dean of associate in arts.

Students work through the modules in a classroom on a computer, with faculty monitoring progress and providing assistance as needed.

“In one semester, they’ve gone from being a developmental student to having completed intermediate algebra,” Wysong says. “This accelerated progress saves them a semester in math.”

Jump-start on college readiness

More institutions now give students a chance to achieve college readiness before their first semester. Remedial students at California State University, San Bernardino, for example, attend free mandatory summer courses called “Coyote First Step,” a program named after the school’s mascot and launched in summer 2015.

“We’re giving students an opportunity to succeed before they start college,” says William L. Vanderburgh, dean of undergraduate studies. “They feel really good about the progress, and they launch into their fall feeling like they really belong here.”

A unique element to this program’s success is that participants get to live free-of-charge in a residence hall. Living on campus together strengthens students’ sense of having a shared goal, says Dean of Students Alysson Satterlund.

In its first summer, more than 1,500 students participated and about 950 reached college-readiness in math. That saved students nearly $3 million (more than the cost of the program) on remedial courses they didn’t have to take, Vanderburgh says.

Key concept in remediation reform

Modular courses: Students who fall just short of college-ready on placement tests work to master specific skills over a few weeks, as an alternative to taking a semester-long remedial course.

The summer courses provide intensive, immersive instruction in which students spend about six hours in math class. Outside class, the students don’t have a lot of down time. They participate in a range of activities, such as laser tag, movies on the campus lawn and financial aid workshops.

The University of Texas at El Paso uses assessment tests to determine how much catch-up instruction a student needs over the summer. The remediation course can last as little as eight hours and up to a full semester, says Donna Ekal, the associate provost for undergraduate studies.

The university’s UTEP PREP courses allow summer students to take a condensed four-week course in a hybrid format. This introduces students to college instruction and online work.

“We have to understand the multiple reasons why students place in remedial, and design interventions that address those needs,” Ekal says.

Laying the groundwork for college coursework requires K12 outreach, too.

In early-college programs at two of Atlanta’s lowest-performing high schools that George State University has operated since 2005, students spend their junior and senior years at Georgia State, taking college-level classes alongside full-time university students, says Vice Provost Timothy M. Renick.

The courses provide college credit that students can also apply to their high school diploma. The high school graduation rate for participating students has jumped from around 50 percent to 90 percent.

Key concept in remediation reform

Better placement testing: Institutions make students more aware of the importance of doing well on placement exams. Some give students multiple tries to improve their scores. Then, software more accurately analyzes the results to place students properly in their first courses.

Georgia State graduates more African Americans with bachelor’s degrees than any other institution in the U.S. The college setting gives low-income high school students more positive academic role models than they might otherwise encounter,
Renick says.

“It’s counterintuitive that students would do better in college-level work than they would in high school classes,” Renick says. “But they are doing much, much better in that setting than they were doing in the old high school model where they were surrounded by other students who haven’t figured out how to succeed in school.”

Progressive, proper placement

Many institutions now work harder to convince students of the importance of excelling on college placement exams, particularly in math. Often, students don’t take the tests seriously, and wind up in remediation or other low-level classes when they only need to brush up on a few skills, says Alison Ahlgren Reddy, director of the math placement program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The university’s adaptive software, ALEKS, analyzes test results and assigns students additional work on the problems they got incorrect. Students can then take the test again before classes start, and Ahlgren’s team can place them in math courses that best match their skill level.

“Nonsuccess in the first math course tends to be the reason why students drop out of STEM majors and don’t graduate,” Reddy says. “Appropriate placement into the first course results in success in the second course.”

Key concept in remediation reform

Summer bridge programs: Students take immersive remedial courses during the summer before their first semester so they can start the fall in credit-bearing courses. Some institutions offer these programs for free, including housing.

Not surprisingly, technology will play a broad role in continued efforts to revamp remedial instruction across higher education, says Renick, of Georgia State.

Flipped classes with adaptive programs force students to be more active learners. The immediate feedback these programs provide also encourages students to move to more challenging work.

“We find this is more exciting to the students,” Renick says. “They are not passively asked to be a receptacle for what the professors say. They are really struggling to figure it out.”

Matt Zalaznick is UB’s senior associate editor.

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