Beyond Ready, Fire, Aim: New Solutions to Old Problems in College Remediation

By Boatman, Angela | AEI Paper & Studies, March 2014 | Go to article overview

Beyond Ready, Fire, Aim: New Solutions to Old Problems in College Remediation


Boatman, Angela, AEI Paper & Studies


Executive Summary

College completion remains a major problem in the United States. Less than 60 percent of students enrolling in four-year colleges graduate within six years, and only 30 percent of students seeking an associate's degree who enroll full time in a community college receive that degree within three years. Some estimates suggest that only one-third of high school graduates complete high school ready for college coursework, and far fewer adult students are ready for postsecondary study.

In response, American high schools have begun experimenting with a variety of new interventions designed to identify students' academic needs earlier, and colleges have adopted new strategies to help students advance more efficiently and effectively to help shorten their time to degree. Many of these interventions have occurred in and around remedial (developmental) education and attempt to better support students' academic needs through improved instructional practice, often through the use of technology such as self-directed learning labs, online-learning models, and high-tech classrooms.

The size and scope of these interventions in remedial and developmental education have garnered a great deal of attention recently, particularly on those efforts that are dependent on emerging technologies. A growing body of research has emerged studying the effects of these new interventions on student outcomes such as persistence, credit accumulation, grade-point average in college-level courses, and degree attainment. While there is evidence to suggest that certain practices are promising, these evaluations tend to exist only in isolation. Despite all the new activity in the market, our understanding of "what works" to help educate underprepared students has not always kept pace with the development of new approaches. We have no shortage of solutions, but are they actually addressing the right problems?

This paper takes an early look at several new interventions in developmental education and provides a structure to help institutional leaders and policymakers evaluate these efforts and the challenges they may face. Most importantly, we must do a better job of identifying the problems developmental education aims to solve and of ensuring these problems are matched with appropriate solutions specific to the needs of individual students and institutions.

A primary obstacle to college completion is inadequate academic preparation for college-level coursework. Estimates suggest that only a third of students graduating from American high schools are at least minimally academically prepared for college. (1) To confront this challenge, postsecondary institutions have traditionally relied on remedial (developmental) courses. (2) These courses target underprepared students with the purpose of improving their abilities to handle college-level material. Incoming students are typically assessed on a battery of skills and content knowledge deemed necessary for success in credit-bearing courses, and those who do not reach an institution's academic benchmarks are placed into developmental courses in math, English, or writing, depending on their needs. Current estimates suggest that 50 percent of all undergraduates and 70 percent of community college students take at least one developmental course while in college. (3)

While developmental courses are intended to increase college access and bridge the gap between K-12 and higher education, they have historically been costly to students, institutions, and taxpayers. Developmental courses are the gateway to college-level courses: students typically have to succeed in their assigned developmental course before moving on to the next course in the sequence. Therefore, students in need of multiple developmental courses in the same subject can, in some cases, end up taking courses for more than a year before fulfilling their remedial requirements. However, developmental course credits rarely count toward a college degree even though students are required to pay tuition for them. …

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