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Developmental Education in the Community College

A CCRC study of more than 250,000 students at 57 community colleges in the Achieving the Dream initiative found that 59 percent of entering students were referred to developmental math and 33 percent were referred to developmental reading.

Federal BPS (Beginning Postsecondary Students) data from 2009 indicate that 68 percent of students beginning at public two-year colleges in 2003–2004 took one or more remedial courses in the six years after their initial college enrollment; 59 percent took at least one course in math, and 28 percent took at least one course in English. At four-year public colleges, 40 percent of students took one or more remedial courses within six years; 33 percent took math and 11 percent took English.

At public two-year colleges, 48 percent of students who began in 2003–04 took two or more remedial courses within six years. At public four-year colleges, 21 percent of students took two or more remedial courses.

At public two-year colleges, 78 percent of Black students, 75 percent of Hispanic students, and 64 percent of White students take remedial courses. Of students in the lowest income group, 76 percent take remedial courses, compared with 59 percent in the highest income group.

At public four-year colleges, 66 percent of Black students, 53 percent of Hispanic students, and 36 percent of White students take remedial courses. Of students in the lowest income group, 52 percent take remedial courses, compared with 33 percent in the highest income group.

Forty-nine percent of remedial coursetakers who started at community colleges in 2003–04 completed all the remedial courses they attempted, 35 percent completed some courses, and 16 percent completed none. That compares with 59 percent at four-year colleges who completed all their courses, 25 percent who completed some, and 15 percent who completed none.

A CCRC study of 57 community colleges participating in the Achieving the Dream initiative found that only 33 percent of students referred to developmental math and 46 percent of students referred to developmental reading go on to complete the entire developmental sequence.

Developmental completion rates vary according to remedial level. Only 17 percent of students referred to the lowest level of developmental math complete the sequence; 45 percent of those referred to the highest level complete the sequence.

A CCRC study of 250,000 community college students found that only 20% of those referred to developmental math and 37% of those referred to developmental reading enrolled in a developmental course and went on to pass the relevant entry-level or "gatekeeper" college course within three years.

An additional 12% of students referred to developmental math and 32% of students referred to developmental reading completed a gatekeeper course in that subject without enrolling in a single developmental course in that same subject.

Among students who started at a community college in 2003 who enrolled in remedial English, 67% had earned college-level English credits by 2009, compared with 70% of nonremedial students. In math, 45% of students who enrolled in remedial courses had earned college-level math credits by 2009, compared with 48% of nonremedial students.

Students who complete their remedial courses are more likely than partial completers or noncompleters to stay in college and earn a bachelor’s degree. But the results vary depending on students' level of academic preparation: Remediation helps weakly prepared students on several indicators but not moderately or strongly prepared students, compared with similar students who do not take remedial courses.

Moderately or strongly prepared community college students who complete some of their remedial courses are worse off than similar students who take no remedial courses on several indicators, including college-level credits earned, transfer to a four-year college, and bachelor’s degree completion. Weakly prepared students who completed some of their remedial courses performed at least as well as their nonremedial counterparts in most areas.

A number of other studies on remediation found mixed or negative results for students who enroll in remedial courses. Bettinger and Long (2005, 2009) found positive effects of math remediation for younger students. Calcagno and Long (2008) and Martorell and McFarlin (2009), however, used a broader sample of students and found no impact on most outcomes (including degree completion), with small mixed positive and negative effects on other outcomes. (For an overview, see Jaggars & Stacey, 2014.)

A 2006 study using data from the National Educational Longitudinal Study (NELS:88) found that among students who take at least one remedial course, 28 percent go on to complete a college credential within 8.5 years.

Among students who started at a community college in 2003, enrolled in remediation, and completed their remedial coursework, 43 percent had earned a certificate, associate degree, or bachelor’s degree by 2009. Twenty-two percent were still enrolled. (Those numbers were slightly better than for nonremedial students.) For those who finished part of their remedial coursework, 26 percent had earned a credential, and 27 percent were still enrolled. For those who enrolled in but completed no remedial coursework, 16 percent had earned a credential, and 18 percent were still enrolled.

For more on the impact of developmental courses on student outcomes, visit the Center for the Analysis of Postsecondary Readiness (CAPR) FAQs.

A 2016 survey by the Center for the Analysis of Postsecondary Readiness (CAPR) found that while multi-semester developmental math sequences are still common, 68% of community colleges offer compressed math courses, 54% offer multiple math pathways, 50% offer self-paced courses, and 28% use the corequisite model in at least some sections.

In English, 64% of community colleges offer integrated reading and writing courses, 54% offer compressed courses, and 56% offer corequisite English in at least some sections.

A random assignment study at four community colleges in Texas found that math pathways reforms, which accelerate developmental math and create alternative math pathways for students who do not need algebra for their majors, help students pass developmental and college-level math at higher rates. After three semesters, 57% of math pathways students completed the developmental math sequence compared with 34% of students in traditional developmental courses and 25% of math pathways students passed college-level math compared with 19% of students who started in traditional developmental courses.

Virginia’s accelerated developmental English courses were implemented in spring 2013. Virginia integrated separate developmental reading and writing courses into a combined course and created one-semester courses of eight, four, or two credits for students at different levels of remedial need. The redesigned courses replaced as many as two writing courses and two reading courses before college English. Before the reform, 45% of students completed introductory college English in one year. After the reform, that figure was 56% (CCRC analysis of data from the ASDER project).

Corequisite remediation, in which students take college-level math or English courses coupled with a parallel developmental class or other academic supports, allows many more students to pass the college-level course, and to do it faster. Tennessee, for instance, reported significant gains after implementing corequisite remediation in its community colleges in fall 2015. While 12% of students passed college-level math within a year under the prerequisite model, 51% of students passed college-level math in one semester under the corequisite model. And while 31% passed college-level writing within a year under the prerequisite model, 59% passed college-level writing in a semester under the corequisite model. By Fall 2017, 56% of corequisite students passed their college-level math course, 61% passed writing and 64% passed reading.

Based on the 2011 National Center for Education Statistics Digest of Education Statistics, CCRC researchers estimate the annual cost of college-level remediation at community colleges to be nearly $4 billion and the annual cost of remediation at all colleges to be nearly $7 billion.

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