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From Roadblock to Opportunity: A Fresh Look at the Core Principles for Transforming Remedial Education

Two-thirds of students in community colleges are assessed as underprepared to successfully enter and complete college-level programs of study. For too many of these students, especially low-income, first-generation, and students of color, underpreparation stands between them and economic opportunity. Without a college credential, most people born into the lowest quintile of the national income distribution will remain stuck there throughout their lifetimes. For example, half of all black Americans born in the lowest income quintile remain there as adults. Black Americans who earn bachelor’s degrees, however, dramatically increase their chances of climbing to higher rungs on the income ladder. On average, holding a bachelor’s degree results in earnings of more than a million dollars more than the earnings of high school diploma holder. The earnings differential can be twice that for those who earn STEM credentials. While many young people and adults show that they understand the importance of earning a postsecondary credential by enrolling in college, the majority need additional academic and student services because they are underprepared for college-level work.

And they are underprepared for structural reasons. The majority of African American high school students, for example, attend high schools in districts with low property wealth that are racially segregated. They are more likely to be taught by novice teachers who lack proper certification and are less likely to have access to rigorous academic courses, such as Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) in comparison with their more affluent peers. These structural factors suggest that for the foreseeable future, the problem of underpreparation is not going away. Given that by 2044 the U.S. population will be “majority minority,” the bleak outlook for economic opportunity for so many students makes the concerted action to fix remediation a national priority. The loss of these potential college graduates diminishes opportunity for social and economic advancement for individuals and threatens our national effort to regain our status as the world’s leader in educational attainment. Our weak system for preparing workers for high-skill jobs has grave consequences for our ability to compete in the global economy. 

Remediation, also known as developmental education, is the set of academic and student service activities that postsecondary institutions employ to improve students’ readiness to enter college and successfully attain college credentials. But despite the fact that 70 percent of students entering community college need remediation, only one in four students who take a remedial course completes college within eight years. Efforts to improve these dismal outcomes have been underway for over a decade, and there are pockets of success, but the big picture remains discouraging. The reasons for this are myriad: large systems change slowly, data on innovative approaches are hard to come by, and perhaps most insidious, the people charged with changing systems that are diverting thousands of poor and minority students from completing college are operating in an incentive structure in which embracing reform can have a negative impact on institutions’ financial interest and can result in developmental educators losing their jobs. 

Structured Pathways are Effective 

This is why revisiting the Core Principles for Transforming Remediation within a Comprehensive Student Success Strategy is especially timely. In 2015, Achieving the Dream, the Association of American Community Colleges, Complete College America, the Dana Center at The University of Texas at Austin, the Education Commission of the States, and Jobs for the Future collaborated to revise a set of principles to reform remedial education originally published in 2012. The newly revised joint statement lays out six principles that call for aligning remedial education to students’ programs of study and decreasing the time students spend taking noncredit-bearing courses. Perhaps the most important feature of the Core Principles is that they re-imagine remediation from an end in and of itself and situate it within a comprehensive student success strategy where foundational academic support and college-level instruction are integrated. 

While Achieving the Dream and the Developmental Education Initiative were in progress, postsecondary education reformers, influenced by research findings from behavioral economics, began to apply the concept of limiting and structuring students’ choices in ways that increase the probability of successful completion outcomes. Influential papers such as Judith Scott-Clayton’s “The Shapeless River” (2011) and Davis Jenkins’ “Get With The Program” (2012) made compelling cases for limiting student choices to a focused set of streamlined programs of study leading to credentials. New privately funded initiatives such as Completion by Design (2011) and Guided Pathways to Success (2012) emerged to encourage colleges to create more streamlined programs supported by more guidance and structure for students. The momentum for increased structure and guided pathways continues to be strong. A new initiative, the American Association of Community Colleges’ Pathways Project, will provide support for 30 community colleges to build guided pathways. 

We Need to Think Big 

The Core Principles integrate developmental education and guided pathways—two strands of postsecondary education reform that have achieved considerable traction over the last decade. While related, both reforms have progressed on largely separate tracks. Developmental education reform advanced first with privately funded multi-college, multi-state initiatives such as Achieving the Dream (begun in 2004) and the Developmental Education Initiative (which followed in 2009). Both initiatives focused on improving outcomes for academically underprepared students entering community college. Subsequent evaluations of these initiatives found little to no impact on completion, in part because both initiatives served a very small number of students and because of their narrow focus on developmental education and related interventions at the front end of students’ college experience, such as college orientation and college success courses. 

The Core Principles suggest several pivots that require significant changes in the way colleges, states, and state systems operate. Whereas early efforts to redesign developmental education viewed it as a standalone intervention to improve students’ basic skills, many in the field—including the signatories of the Core Principles—now call instead for an integrated strategy to help students acquire the skills and competencies they need to enter and successfully complete pathways to credentials and degrees in their selected college-level programs of study. The Core Principles also call for close collaboration between the K-12 and employment sectors. And there is an emphasis on scale. Significant shifts in behaviors and operating models do not come easy. A constellation of cultural, institutional, and policy barriers conspires to prevent change. To fully implement the Core Principles, these barriers must be identified and systematically dismantled. Ultimately, the Core Principles are about systems change. 

The Core Principles call for the integration of the structured pathways approach with best practices for developmental education argue that this integration is essential if we are to create economic mobility for large numbers of poor and minority students. 

This is the first in a series by Michael Collins. To read the second blog in this series, please click here

To read the third blog in this series, please click here.

To read the final blog in this series, please click here.

Read his statement on the release of the Core Principles.