The weaknesses of remedial education in community colleges have been well documented. Complete College America, a nonprofit group that is dedicated to improving graduation rates nationally, has dubbed remedial education a “bridge to nowhere” because the majority of students who begin remedial education never make it to credit-bearing courses.
Remedial education typically refers to classes in math or English that are intended to prepare students for college-level courses. Standard remedial classes are non-credit-bearing, and some sequences can be three semesters long, meaning that, even if students stay on track, it can take up to a year and half before they begin taking classes for credit. For students attempting to get a degree, remedial education can set back their time to completion further.
A 2012 Complete College America report found that fewer than 1 in 10 students who start in remedial education graduate from community college within three years.
Given the poor returns on remediation, colleges and policy makers have studied different ways to reform it. A new report from New America, “How to Fix Remediation at Scale,” suggests that co-requisite remediation produces substantially better results than other models, analyzing findings from Colorado, Georgia, Indiana, Tennessee, and West Virginia.
Co-requisite developmental education simultaneously enrolls students in remedial and college-level classes in the same subject, allowing students to earn credit toward a degree while providing them with the support they need.
“The traditional remediation paths are just so long that students get discouraged and fall out of them, whereas if you connect the support services with the college level course, the student finishes the college level and the remedial course at the same time,” said Iris Palmer, senior policy analyst at New America and author of the recent report.
All five states found that the co-requisite model is the most promising, although some experimented with different models. West Virginia and Indiana, for instance, piloted “stretch courses,” which give students more time to complete the course; boot camps to prepare students for placement exams; and a “modular” approach, which breaks down the remedial coursework into more manageable pieces.
“What was kind of remarkable is that the co-requisite model seemed to come to the top in all of the states, which is not something you always see in policy efforts,” Palmer said.
The success of the co-requisite model suggests that the problem may not be remedial education itself, but rather the fact that it slows down the process toward a degree. In Tennessee, Palmer said, students are placed in remedial education based on their ACT score. Students who had a lower ACT score and received remedial education, she said, actually did better than their counterparts who had a higher ACT score and therefore did not receive supplemental support.
“So we know the instruction itself was actually working well; it was just the way it was being offered that was not working for students,” Palmer said.
Tennessee and Indiana plan to phase out “stand alone” remedial education in favor of the co-requisite model.
The lessons to be taken away from the five states is that co-requisite education can be implemented state-wide, but to do so takes careful planning and engagement from many different players.
“There’s no magic bullet,” Palmer said. “It comes down to hard work and coordination with faculty and administrators at your institutions to come to a consensus that there is a problem that needs to be addressed, and then work to solve that problem.”
Staff writer Catherine Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.