Why Is Florida Ending Remedial Education for College Students?

Starting this fall, academically underprepared students at Florida’s public universities no longer have to take classes designed to help them catch up.

National Journal
Janell Ross
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Janell Ross
Aug. 25, 2014, 10:02 a.m.

Back when re­medi­al edu­ca­tion was pop­u­lar in policy circles, it was seen as a way to help those stu­dents most at risk of drop­ping out of col­lege. In­stead of im­me­di­ately find­ing them­selves over­whelmed after ar­riv­ing at col­lege aca­dem­ic­ally un­der­prepared, stu­dents could get up to speed through re­medi­al courses offered side-by-side with tra­di­tion­al col­lege classes. In the last few years, however, crit­ics have be­gun to ques­tion wheth­er re­medi­al classes solved any prob­lems or in­stead cre­ated more of their own, as the share of stu­dents re­quired to spend valu­able fin­an­cial-aid funds and time on zero-cred­it courses that brought them no closer to a de­gree ex­pan­ded.

Ques­tions about the use­ful­ness of re­medi­al edu­ca­tion have led some states to chip away at the pub­lic fund­ing and in­fra­struc­ture that make it pos­sible for many stu­dents to en­roll in re­medi­al col­lege courses. And in Flor­ida, re­medi­al edu­ca­tion it­self may soon dis­ap­pear.

In Flor­ida this fall, a new law will force all of the state’s pub­lic col­leges and uni­versit­ies to pre­sume that all stu­dents who gradu­ated from a Flor­ida pub­lic high school after 2004 are aca­dem­ic­ally pre­pared for col­lege. Pub­lic col­leges in Flor­ida will have the op­tion of as­sess­ing a stu­dent’s aca­dem­ic stand­ing us­ing tests, high school GPAs, and oth­er meas­ures—and they may ad­vise stu­dents with lim­ited skills to take re­medi­al classes. In the end, though, stu­dents them­selves will de­cide wheth­er they want to en­roll in re­medi­al classes or enter dir­ectly in­to in­tro­duct­ory courses.

Across the coun­try, states spend an es­tim­ated $2.3 bil­lion each year provid­ing re­medi­al, no-cred­it col­lege courses, ac­cord­ing to a 2008 ana­lys­is re­leased by Strong Amer­ic­an Schools. “De­vel­op­ment­al edu­ca­tion is ab­so­lutely huge,” says Toby Park, an as­sist­ant pro­fess­or at Flor­ida State Uni­versity who stud­ies edu­ca­tion policy and eco­nom­ics.

A Na­tion­al Con­fer­ence of State Le­gis­latures ana­lys­is of stu­dent en­roll­ment and gradu­ation stud­ies found that any­where from 28 per­cent to 40 per­cent of first-time col­lege stu­dents en­roll in at least one re­medi­al-edu­ca­tion course. And re­medi­al-edu­ca­tion par­ti­cip­a­tion rates are dis­pro­por­tion­ately high among the fast-grow­ing parts of the col­lege-go­ing pop­u­la­tion and fu­ture work­force—older stu­dents, low-in­come in­di­vidu­als, and black and Latino en­rollees.

In Flor­ida alone, 78 per­cent of com­munity-col­lege stu­dents and 55 per­cent of all col­lege stu­dents tested in­to at least one de­vel­op­ment­al edu­ca­tion course dur­ing the 2005-2006 school year, says Park, who is also a seni­or re­search as­so­ci­ate at Flor­ida State’s Cen­ter for Post­sec­ond­ary Suc­cess. Per­haps worse still, the NC­SL found that only small shares of stu­dents who en­roll in de­vel­op­ment­al-edu­ca­tion courses com­plete them. An even smal­ler group of stu­dents re­main en­rolled in col­lege at all after two years. Eight years after en­ter­ing a col­lege-de­gree pro­gram, just un­der 25 per­cent of stu­dents who have taken a re­medi­al course man­age to earn an as­so­ci­ates de­gree or ca­reer cer­ti­fic­ate, ac­cord­ing to the NC­SL. 

The ad­ded time in col­lege and ex­penses that come with tak­ing re­medi­al, zero-cred­it classes have been linked to lower gradu­ation rates, says Thomas Bailey, dir­ect­or of the Com­munity Col­lege Re­search Cen­ter, housed at Columbia Uni­versity’s Teach­er’s Col­lege. The evid­ence that these courses ac­tu­ally boost stu­dent’s aca­dem­ic skills re­mains lim­ited, Bailey says. Re­search­ers at the Com­munity Col­lege Re­search Cen­ter also es­tim­ate that across the coun­try as many as 25 per­cent of stu­dents who have been forced in­to de­vel­op­ment­al edu­ca­tion courses after fail­ing a single place­ment test could, in fact, handle col­lege-level course work.

Law­makers in a num­ber of states—in­clud­ing Col­or­ado, Con­necti­c­ut, North Car­o­lina and Texas—are for­cing col­leges to im­ple­ment a whole range of re­medi­al-edu­ca­tion re­forms, says Jeff Liv­ing­ston, a seni­or vice pres­id­ent of edu­ca­tion policy at Mc­Graw-Hill Edu­ca­tion. Re­lated ef­forts have also taken shape in Ari­zona and In­di­ana. These de­vel­op­ments come as the re­ces­sion and fed­er­al budget cuts have left many states strug­gling to man­age their budgets. 

“It has really been in the last three of four years that the no­tion of de­vel­op­ment­al edu­ca­tion has been near the top of the edu­ca­tion­al agenda in states,” Liv­ing­ston says. “Fi­nally more people are ask­ing the ques­tion, ‘Why are we pay­ing twice—in high school and again in col­lege—to teach the same per­son Al­gebra I?’”

Mc­Graw-Hill Edu­ca­tion, a com­pany best known to most Amer­ic­ans as a ma­jor pro­du­cer of text books, provided some of the tests that Flor­ida col­leges and uni­versit­ies have, un­til now, used to de­term­ine the classes in which stu­dents are al­lowed to en­roll. Now the com­pany is in­volved in the busi­ness of re­form­ing de­vel­op­ment­al edu­ca­tion. The com­pany de­veloped a soft­ware pro­gram that helps to identi­fy the spe­cif­ic skills that an in­di­vidu­al stu­dent has not mastered and fo­cuses any re­medi­al edu­ca­tion on just those areas. Some of the largest com­munity col­leges in the coun­try, serving highly di­verse stu­dent bod­ies in Flor­ida and Texas, have pur­chased the pro­gram.

Some states, such as Con­necti­c­ut, have clamped down on the length of time that stu­dents may be en­rolled in de­vel­op­ment­al, no-cred­it courses, and they have en­cour­aged col­leges to cre­ate com­pressed, in­tense re­medi­al courses. Col­or­ado, in one ex­ample, re­designed de­vel­op­ment­al courses in­to pack­ages, known as co-re­quis­ite courses. Aca­dem­ic­ally un­pre­pared stu­dents who are en­rolled in cred­it-grant­ing re­quire­ments such as Eng­lish or Al­gebra 101 must also spend time in a concept re­in­force­ment lab that of­fers form­al, per­son­al­ized tu­tor­ing to boost the stu­dent’s aca­dem­ic skills.

When In­di­ana le­gis­lat­ors learned that math was the most fre­quent form of de­vel­op­ment­al edu­ca­tion in which stu­dents were forced to en­roll, they ordered col­lege-bound high school seni­ors to take a math course. The aim was to send kids to col­lege with a fresh un­der­stand­ing of the math­em­at­ic­al con­cepts they might use the fol­low­ing year.

Park, the Flor­ida State re­search­er, will spend the next three years track­ing the sys­tems that Flor­ida col­leges and uni­versit­ies es­tab­lish to guide stu­dents as they en­roll in col­lege. He and col­leagues will also mon­it­or stu­dents to de­term­ine what share de­cide to en­roll in re­medi­al edu­ca­tion and wheth­er out­comes dif­fer for those who go dir­ectly in­to cred­ited courses versus those who be­gin in the de­vel­op­ment­al-edu­ca­tion track. Even­tu­ally, Park and his team will have a trove of data that may be able to shape mod­els for pre­dict­ing which stu­dents be­ne­fit most from re­medi­al edu­ca­tion, which courses stu­dents who shared this pro­file op­ted to en­roll in when presen­ted with the choice, and what be­came of them once they did so.

Park and two oth­er re­search­ers have already iden­ti­fied a few pat­terns in the way that Flor­ida’s col­leges and uni­versity’s are man­aging this fall’s big change. Most schools are plan­ning to com­press re­medi­al-edu­ca­tion courses in­to short­er peri­ods of time and to in­crease the amount of time that stu­dents spend with their aca­dem­ic ad­visers be­fore mak­ing choices about their course se­lec­tion. The lat­ter will mean dif­fer­ent things at dif­fer­ent schools. At Miami-Dade Col­lege, a com­munity col­lege with about 160,000 stu­dents, there is one aca­dem­ic ad­viser for every 1,700 stu­dents, Park says.

Flor­ida’s re­medi­al-edu­ca­tion re­form came with no ad­di­tion­al fund­ing for schools. “As a re­search­er I look at this and say, this may be well-in­ten­tioned but it seems like something about this may not go quite right,” Park says. “Of course what we are go­ing to do is gath­er a lot of data that should help us an­swer those ques­tions.”

Note: Both the Cen­ter for Post-Sec­ond­ary Suc­cess and Strong Amer­ic­an Schools re­ceive fund­ing from The Bill and Melinda Gates Found­a­tion, which funds ef­forts to identi­fy new and ef­fect­ive re­medi­al edu­ca­tion mod­els. The found­a­tion is also a spon­sor of Na­tion­al Journ­al’s Next Amer­ica pro­ject.

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