Transforming Remediation to Dramatically Increase Credential Attainment and Economic Mobility for Underserved Populations

Statement by Michael L. Collins, Associate Vice President, Postsecondary State Policy at Jobs for the Future, on the Joint Release of New Principles for Developmental Education

Boston, MA—(November 11, 2015)—Improving developmental education is a daunting task, particularly at community colleges that educate a large proportion of first-time, nontraditional, and underprepared students. Today, approximately 70 percent of all community college students place into at least one developmental education course. In spite of decades of efforts to strengthen developmental education, too many students—particularly those who enter at the lower levels—never complete the courses or gain traction toward earning the college credential they need to secure good jobs.

Today, Jobs for the Future and five other national organizations released Core Principles for Transforming Remediation within a Comprehensive Student Success Strategy. The Core Principles update those first released in 2012 and build on the remarkable progress made in the field to improve developmental education. The principles also are grounded in the growing body of research and evidence demonstrating the policies and practices likely to help the most students succeed.

The Core Principles acknowledge that providing all students with a pathway to academic success and economic mobility requires concerted, sustained, and scalable efforts at the institutional level with the support of sound state policy. This is central to Jobs for the Future’s mission. Low-income students, students of color, and underprepared students need equitable access to postsecondary pathways—and on-ramps to those pathways—to dramatically increase their chances of earning credentials. The need for action is clear: At community colleges, which disproportionately enroll low-income students and students of color, less than a quarter of students who begin in developmental education complete a degree or certificate within eight years. Half of young people from high-income families possess a Bachelor’s degree by age 25, but only 10 percent of those from low-income families do.

The Core Principles describe smart, evidence-based strategies. We support and believe in them because the evidence suggests they can dramatically improve credential completion. We also know that a set of principles is only the first step in a long journey of hard work. States can’t just make transformations by decree or through cursory legislative or regulatory actions, and the work of improvement is not solely the responsibility of institutions. Rather, states working closely with their colleges can better align policies and understand the contexts in which colleges operate to make developmental education reform work.

Our own policy research shows that even states that push for developmental education reform through legislative action face a broad range of challenges that might be better addressed over time by state and college collaboration. A series of case studies we recently completed on colleges in Florida, for example, underscores the need for effective engagement and collaboration between states and colleges in implementing developmental education reforms. The challenges to implementation encountered by Florida colleges include: the growing number of developmental courses offered throughout the state that are not aligned or consistent across colleges or with high schools; difficulty in gathering college readiness data because of state prohibitions on assessing some students upon entry into college; and a lack of dedicated resources to implement mandated reforms.

The revision of the Core Principles provides an opportunity for authentic engagement of the field at a pivotal time for developmental education reform. The Core Principles are not a proxy for legislation, but a conversation starter to engage the field to move forward with integrity and action. It is essential that college and state leaders have multiple opportunities in diverse and safe settings to discuss and unpack the evidence supporting the principles. The principles can help states and colleges assess their current policies and practices to identify gaps and strengthen alignment. Optimally, colleges and policymakers will dig into the details to better understand the institutional capacity, costs, and policy supports that need to be in place to bring proven approaches to scale.

The Core Principles start with the intake process and seek to accelerate integration of students needing developmental education into college-level programs that can end in transfer to a baccalaureate program or a job that pays family-supporting wages. They also address the need for states and institutions to build out student pathways aligned with student career interests, so that students pursue paths of learning that are relevant to their aspirations. They require that campuses and states provide an even stronger focus on the students furthest away from completion—those who are two or three grade levels behind when they complete high school—and who require greater support.

These are the right ideas and goals, but guidance and resources are essential to ensure effective implementation. JFF’s Policy Leadership Trust for Student Success, a group of college and state leaders who are convening to tackle higher education’s most pressing issues, is focusing one of its four task forces on redesigning developmental education to address these and other issues. At our recent meeting, task force members identified many of the same issues outlined in the Core Principles as critical to helping more students who require developmental education progress and achieve their goals. As Sharon Morrissey, Vice Chancellor for Academic Services & Research for Virginia’s Community Colleges and a member of the task force, notes, “This is a significant improvement from 2012. We are excited to see a broader set of organizations advocating for these changes at a system-wide level, and particularly the recognition of the complexities of developmental education and the amount of focused effort that it will take to meet the challenge.”

At its core, the effort to improve remediation is an issue of equity. If higher education is truly about helping all college students improve their circumstances—not just those who are the most prepared and advantaged—then we must do more to help those students who are less prepared and need more support to ensure they are on a pathway to success.

Improving developmental education continues to be at the center of the work JFF does, particularly in community colleges. JFF is committed to continuing to lead this work and to promoting these principles in the states through the work of the Trust, as well as through our Postsecondary State Policy Network and Student Success Centers.