Developmental Education

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In recent years, as many as two thirds of community college students have taken developmental courses—which don't count toward a college credential—to try to bring their skills up to college level. Colleges are pursuing several reforms to reduce that number and improve outcomes for students.

Fast Facts

01
Students with low scores on placement tests have traditionally been required or encouraged to take developmental math or English before taking college-level gateway courses. These sequences have been as long as four semesters for some students.
02
Only a small percentage of students placed at the lowest levels of developmental education ever finish their remedial courses.
03
Black and Hispanic students are more likely to be assigned to developmental courses than White students.

Why We Study Developmental Education

Developmental education is designed to bring underprepared college students up to speed in math or English so they can succeed in college-level courses. But with a large percentage of community college students assigned to developmental courses, it has long been the default introduction to college and a contributor to equity gaps—despite a growing consensus that traditional developmental education is ineffective.

Under traditional multisemester remediation, students spend time and money completing courses but not accumulating credits toward a credential, and many of them never finish their developmental coursework. Research shows that many students deemed underprepared could succeed in college-level courses without remediation, while others could do so with some additional support. In light of this, colleges across the country are reforming developmental assessment and placement and increasingly instituting accelerated forms of remediation. As the developmental education landscape evolves, CCRC and the CCRC-led Center for the Analysis of Postsecondary Readiness (CAPR) are studying what works and conducting research to explore the needs of specific student groups.

Major Developmental Education Reforms

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Corequisite Remediation

Colleges place students deemed academically underprepared into college-level courses and provide them with additional learning support, most commonly a paired extra-help course in the same subject area.

What We Know So Far

Corequisite remediation appears to help students pass college-level math and English at higher rates. One recent CCRC study looked at students on the margin of the college readiness threshold. Students placed into corequisite remediation were 15 percentage points more likely to pass gateway math and 13 percentage points more likely to pass gateway English within one year of enrollment than similar students placed into prerequisite remediation.

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Math Pathways

Instead of requiring most students to take algebra, some colleges are offering sequences of developmental and college-level math courses that align with students’ academic and career goals—such as statistics for social science majors and algebra for STEM majors—and aiming to accelerate students' completion of math gateway courses.

What We Know So Far

A CAPR study looking at the Dana Center Mathematics Pathways (DCMP) model found that math pathways students were 11 percentage points more likely to pass a college-level math course during their second semester and nearly 7 percentage points more likely to pass a college-level math class by the end of their third semester than students in traditional developmental math.

Key Findings

DCMP had a positive impact on students’ completion of developmental math and likelihood of taking and passing college-level math.

The impacts of DCMP appear to be greater for part-time students and students assessed as needing multiple developmental courses.

Startup and net ongoing direct costs to the colleges to implement and maintain DCMP were fairly low.

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Multiple Measures Placement

Whereas colleges formerly often used a single test to place students into developmental or college-level courses, many are now using additional measures, such as high school GPA, to improve placement accuracy. Some systems allow students to consult with an advisor or faculty member to determine the most appropriate course given their goals and academic background through a process called directed self-placement.

What We Know So Far

Results from two experimental studies from CAPR indicate that student outcomes improve under MMA as compared to status quo placement based on test scores alone. In both math and English, at least 15% of students were bumped up into college-level courses and those students were more likely to complete college-level courses. A CAPR toolkit pulls together resources for planning and implementing an MMA system.

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Podcast

Transforming Developmental Education to Support Students Throughout College

Developmental education is often thought of as a set of courses to take early in college and then leave behind. But a lack of preparation for the challenges of college can show up at various times and in various ways, including among students who were deemed ready for college from the beginning. In this podcast, CCRC's Nikki Edgecombe and Susan Bickerstaff discuss how colleges can alter their academic and nonacademic supports to more effectively help all students.

Listen now

Unanswered Questions About Effective Developmental Programs

Teaching and Learning in Developmental Education

CCRC research on CUNY Start, a pre-college-enrollment model of developmental education in the City University of New York, and the Lesson Study professional development model, which was tested in developmental math courses in Oregon, delves into ways colleges can improve teaching and learning in the developmental classroom. For more, read:

May 2020

How Can We Improve Teaching in Higher Education? Learning From CUNY Start

October 2021

The Implementation and Outcomes of Lesson Study in Community College Mathematics

Our Developmental Education Experts

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Thomas Brock

Director

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Nikki Edgecombe

Senior Research Scholar

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Susan Bickerstaff

Senior Research Associate

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Elizabeth Kopko

Senior Research Associate

Read More

View all of our publications on developmental education.