The Experience of Community College for Developmental Students: Challenges and Motivations

Article excerpt

This article adds to existing literatures on "developmental students," or those placing into non-credit-bearing reading and/or writing classes, by exploring their own personal experiences of attending community college. The findings of this qualitative study, based on a set of semistructured interviews with 18 developmental students in community college, reveal a variety of challenges and motivations related to persistence. Challenges included multiple demands on students" time, difficulty of classes and writing assignments, and students" perceptions of inadequate pedagogy. Students appeared motivated to persist by the opportunity to engage new ideas and serve as a role model for friends and family members. Implications of these findings for helping developmental students persist toward their college degrees are considered.

Background and literature review

Developmental students are generally considered those community college students lacking in basic reading, writing, and/or mathematics abilities. These students are generally required to complete a number of non-credit-bearing, basic skills courses before enrolling in freshman-level English, mathematics, and science courses. Overall, fewer than 30% of community college students graduate within six years and these numbers are significantly lower for those students enrolled in developmental reading and writing classes (Adelman, 2002; Attewell, Lavin, Domina, & Levey, 2006; Bailey, Crosta, & Jenkins, 2007; Crosta & Calcagno, 2005). Moreover, among community college graduates, those initially assigned to developmental classes are significantly less likely to eventually earn a bachelor's degree (Adelman, 1996). While some attribute these poor outcomes to the stigmatization that developmental students face from the larger college community, many believe that they are due to preexisting academic deficiencies and not having developed adequate preparation for college-level classes in high school (Attewell & Lavin, 2007; Fox, 1999; Grubb, 1999; Richardson, 2005).

Many critics contend that the monies spent on developmental education would be better spent improving the quality of education within urban high schools and preparing developmental students for vocational positions in the workforce (Bennett, 1992; Hagedorn, Siadat, Fogel, Nora, and Pascarella, 1999; Traub, 1994, 1998). Claiming that developmental students' limitations are simply too severe to be assuaged, many community college faculty members lament the amount of time they spend in the classroom attempting to teach students the basics of reading and writing (Grubb, 1999).

And yet, others argue that a long-standing objective of community colleges has been to provide developmental education for those students who have been failed by their secondary institutions and that there would be serious class- and race-based consequences to reducing and/or eliminating developmental education since the vast majority of developmental students are working-class students of color (Attewell, Lavin, Domina, and Levey, 2006; Grubb, 1999; Rich, 1995). These scholars, contending that developmental students are entitled to access higher education through the community college classroom, have articulated a number of effective pedagogical strategies for helping developmental students translate important ideas on to paper and engage college-level texts (Perl, 1994; Rose, 1989; Sternglass, 1997; Tsao, 2005). Moreover, they believe that a combination of active, engaging pedagogy, alongside appropriate supports and scaffolding for major reading and writing assignments, developmental students can develop basic reading and writing abilities, while concurrently grappling with discipline-specific content.

The current, qualitative study seeks to add to the above literatures concerning developmental students' poor skill levels, inadequate preparation, and rights to access by attempting to understand how community college is experienced by a small sample of developmental students who have yet to pass the reading and/or writing proficiency exams. …