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Can High School Transition Courses Help Students Avoid College Remediation? Estimating the Impact of a Transition Program in a Large Urban District

By: Madeline Joy Trimble, Lara Pheatt, Tatev Papikyan & Elisabeth A. Barnett

Graduating from high school does not always ensure successful transition into postsecondary education or other career training. While college participation rates are at a historic high, too many students who graduate from high school are underprepared for college. Schools across the country are working to help improve students’ college readiness by implementing transition courses developed jointly by secondary and postsecondary faculty for students at risk of being placed into remedial math or English coursework.

This study examines the effectiveness of math and English transition courses with added supports through the At Home in College program in New York City, which was developed by the City University of New York. Our study asks:What is the impact of the availability of the transition course program on students’ attainment of college readiness benchmarks upon initial college enrollment and on students’ likelihood of passing a first college-level (gatekeeper) course in the related subject in the first year of college? Taking advantage of staggered program implementation, we employ a difference-in-differences (DID) methodology to compare the difference in student outcomes between cohorts of students in schools that continuously implemented the transition program during a given timeframe to the difference in outcomes between cohorts that had not yet implemented the program. Our findings in relation to English suggest a small negative impact (3 percentage points) on college readiness and no impact on passing an English gatekeeper course within the first-year of college entry. In math, we find no impact on college readiness in math and a small positive and significant effect (1 percentage point) on passing a math gatekeeper course within one year of college entry. In both subjects, we find a small, positive impact (1 credit) on the number of college course credits earned in the first year. However, these results are somewhat sensitive to alternate sample specifications.

Taken together, the findings suggest that offering the program is likely neutral to mildly beneficial and at least not harmful to high school seniors. Yet because the counterfactual circumstance typically includes a college-preparatory course of some kind that is displaced in favor of the treatment, it is important for policymakers and educators implementing transition courses to carefully consider the unintended consequences of removing students from alternative courses. If the alternative courses are already rigorous, well-taught, and packed with content that is useful for college success, the transformative impact of a transition course may be limited.