Back when remedial education was popular in policy circles, it was seen as a way to help those students most at risk of dropping out of college. Instead of immediately finding themselves overwhelmed after arriving at college academically underprepared, students could get up to speed through remedial courses offered side-by-side with traditional college classes. In the last few years, however, critics have begun to question whether remedial classes solved any problems or instead created more of their own, as the share of students required to spend valuable financial-aid funds and time on zero-credit courses that brought them no closer to a degree expanded.
Questions about the usefulness of remedial education have led some states to chip away at the public funding and infrastructure that make it possible for many students to enroll in remedial college courses. And in Florida, remedial education itself may soon disappear.
In Florida this fall, a new law will force all of the state's public colleges and universities to presume that all students who graduated from a Florida public high school after 2004 are academically prepared for college. Public colleges in Florida will have the option of assessing a student's academic standing using tests, high school GPAs, and other measures—and they may advise students with limited skills to take remedial classes. In the end, though, students themselves will decide whether they want to enroll in remedial classes or enter directly into introductory courses.
Across the country, states spend an estimated $2.3 billion each year providing remedial, no-credit college courses, according to a 2008 analysis released by Strong American Schools. "Developmental education is absolutely huge," says Toby Park, an assistant professor at Florida State University who studies education policy and economics.
A National Conference of State Legislatures analysis of student enrollment and graduation studies found that anywhere from 28 percent to 40 percent of first-time college students enroll in at least one remedial-education course. And remedial-education participation rates are disproportionately high among the fast-growing parts of the college-going population and future workforce—older students, low-income individuals, and black and Latino enrollees.
In Florida alone, 78 percent of community-college students and 55 percent of all college students tested into at least one developmental education course during the 2005-2006 school year, says Park, who is also a senior research associate at Florida State's Center for Postsecondary Success. Perhaps worse still, the NCSL found that only small shares of students who enroll in developmental-education courses complete them. An even smaller group of students remain enrolled in college at all after two years. Eight years after entering a college-degree program, just under 25 percent of students who have taken a remedial course manage to earn an associates degree or career certificate, according to the NCSL.
The added time in college and expenses that come with taking remedial, zero-credit classes have been linked to lower graduation rates, says Thomas Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center, housed at Columbia University's Teacher's College. The evidence that these courses actually boost student's academic skills remains limited, Bailey says. Researchers at the Community College Research Center also estimate that across the country as many as 25 percent of students who have been forced into developmental education courses after failing a single placement test could, in fact, handle college-level course work.
Lawmakers in a number of states—including Colorado, Connecticut, North Carolina and Texas—are forcing colleges to implement a whole range of remedial-education reforms, says Jeff Livingston, a senior vice president of education policy at McGraw-Hill Education. Related efforts have also taken shape in Arizona and Indiana. These developments come as the recession and federal budget cuts have left many states struggling to manage their budgets.
"It has really been in the last three of four years that the notion of developmental education has been near the top of the educational agenda in states," Livingston says. "Finally more people are asking the question, 'Why are we paying twice—in high school and again in college—to teach the same person Algebra I?'"
McGraw-Hill Education, a company best known to most Americans as a major producer of text books, provided some of the tests that Florida colleges and universities have, until now, used to determine the classes in which students are allowed to enroll. Now the company is involved in the business of reforming developmental education. The company developed a software program that helps to identify the specific skills that an individual student has not mastered and focuses any remedial education on just those areas. Some of the largest community colleges in the country, serving highly diverse student bodies in Florida and Texas, have purchased the program.
Some states, such as Connecticut, have clamped down on the length of time that students may be enrolled in developmental, no-credit courses, and they have encouraged colleges to create compressed, intense remedial courses. Colorado, in one example, redesigned developmental courses into packages, known as co-requisite courses. Academically unprepared students who are enrolled in credit-granting requirements such as English or Algebra 101 must also spend time in a concept reinforcement lab that offers formal, personalized tutoring to boost the student's academic skills.
When Indiana legislators learned that math was the most frequent form of developmental education in which students were forced to enroll, they ordered college-bound high school seniors to take a math course. The aim was to send kids to college with a fresh understanding of the mathematical concepts they might use the following year.
Park, the Florida State researcher, will spend the next three years tracking the systems that Florida colleges and universities establish to guide students as they enroll in college. He and colleagues will also monitor students to determine what share decide to enroll in remedial education and whether outcomes differ for those who go directly into credited courses versus those who begin in the developmental-education track. Eventually, Park and his team will have a trove of data that may be able to shape models for predicting which students benefit most from remedial education, which courses students who shared this profile opted to enroll in when presented with the choice, and what became of them once they did so.
Park and two other researchers have already identified a few patterns in the way that Florida's colleges and university's are managing this fall's big change. Most schools are planning to compress remedial-education courses into shorter periods of time and to increase the amount of time that students spend with their academic advisers before making choices about their course selection. The latter will mean different things at different schools. At Miami-Dade College, a community college with about 160,000 students, there is one academic adviser for every 1,700 students, Park says.
Florida's remedial-education reform came with no additional funding for schools. "As a researcher I look at this and say, this may be well-intentioned but it seems like something about this may not go quite right," Park says. "Of course what we are going to do is gather a lot of data that should help us answer those questions."
Note: Both the Center for Post-Secondary Success and Strong American Schools receive funding from The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which funds efforts to identify new and effective remedial education models. The foundation is also a sponsor of National Journal's Next America project.