We might think of developmental education at the college level as the traditional approach to transitions services for students who may not be prepared for college-level coursework. Recent experience has shown, however, that tradition is not helping enough students graduate from college, as detailed in last week’s AP article on college developmental courses. “Only about a quarter of students nationally who take developmental—or remedial—classes ever graduate,” the article points out. That figure is staggering. Postsecondary institutions are dealing with two main problems when it comes to improving those numbers and reforming developmental education (aside from the growing need for it): how to accurately assess whether students need development, and how to best help students who do in fact need that development.
The predictive value of standardized tests has come into question at all levels of education in recent years. Assessments of college readiness, and specifically placement tests, are the latest among them. Thus, colleges’ attempts to find new ways of assessing students’ preparedness are a welcome change. However, some experimental approaches currently in use still do not take the entire student into account and may be just as one-dimensional as assessment tests like the ACCUPLACER. Allowing students to decide themselves whether or not to take remedial courses could be risky for students and institutions. Using GPA as a lone indicator gives only a narrow idea of a student’s needs.
Still, there are plenty of students who clearly are not ready for the rigor of credit-bearing courses. I saw that first-hand when I was an advisor and teacher’s aide for a college bridge program for GED recipients in 2010. The program was designed specifically to reduce the need for developmental courses once students got to college. Although the nonprofit I worked for geared the program toward non-traditional students aged 16-21, the model had the potential to help any students who needed to improve their college preparation. Indeed, most of our students were graduates of The Next Step Public Charter School, which employed an academic model that was a hybrid between a traditional high school and a GED preparation center.
The instructors for our program included actual college professors who had several years’ experience teaching developmental-level courses. To supplement those academic courses, my fellow AmeriCorps volunteer at my site taught a study skills course that was developed at a Big Ten university and had been taught at the college level for several semesters. In addition to my role as a teacher’s aide for those three courses, I also designed and implement a college advising program. Advising focused on college and career research in addition to filling out college and financial aid applications. In short, we took a holistic approach to support as many aspects of the college transition process as possible.
This model showed so much promise, but after just one cycle, the entire organization was shut down due to funding shortfalls. That lack of financial support is telling of how our academic system overlooks students’ transition needs. Solutions to student preparedness are directed at high schools or colleges, but approaches that target both and attempt to bridge that gap are rare. Of course, early intervention is best, and there is no substitute for giving a child a solid educational foundation before she reaches college. However, we can’t turn back the clock for students who are already moving on to postsecondary education. Those students need and deserve help, too.
Developmental students’ struggles to graduate also demonstrate that academic skills are not enough for success in postsecondary education and the workforce. Learning non-cognitive skills such as time management, self-motivation, and effective communication is essential. Those sorts of skills are innate in some students and must be learned by others. Study skills courses can go a long way in guiding students to success, but how often do we hear about high schools that offer those courses? Convincing college students to put some of their valuable financial aid toward a study skills class can be difficult as well. Nonetheless, equipping students with a holistic set of skills should be a priority at all levels of education.
It’s clear that postsecondary institutions, and community colleges in particular, are suffering from a lack of essential information about students’ needs and their potential for success. Grades and test scores can only communicate so much, but a student’s teachers, counselors, and coaches can communicate a wealth of information about his potential. In order to bridge this gap between high school and college for students, we as educators need to bridge that same gap among ourselves. We need to talk to each other. Colleges need to reach out to high schools more to gain a fuller understanding of what students have learned and what they are capable of, and policy makers need to give colleges the funding to maximize those human resources. K-12 schools need to be more aware of students’ postsecondary options and interests along with the expectations of colleges and universities. Further, nonprofit organizations and community college programs specifically designed to help students transition into and persist in college deserve more financial and community support.
As with every other stage in our education system, developmental education programs suffer from a lack of coherence with the stages of education both above and below it. Colleges are taking important steps to find solutions for assessing whether students need developmental courses and which approaches are most successful for students who do need extra help. For the sake of those students, reform efforts should focus on students’ needs and experiences in their entirety.