Nationwide, just over half of the students who begin a college degree end up graduating.
Often, the ones who don’t make it arrive on campus not quite ready for the academic rigor of college courses; not quite sure how to study and prepare for college papers and exams; and without sufficient personal and academic support networks to help them get through it all.
Three decades ago, former Northern Essex Community College president, Dr. David Hartleb, with some faculty colleagues at the University of Cincinnati, where he was a dean in 1989, created Teaching Academic Survival and Success (TASS), a national conference for front-line faculty and staff working with at-risk students on college campuses everywhere.
Since then, TASS has become a favorite annual pilgrimage for hundreds of Reading, Writing, and Math instructors, academic advisors and coaches, tutors, librarians, instructional designers and technologists, and others seeking to make a positive difference in the lives of some of America’s most disadvantaged and underserved college students.
NECC has been a proud supporter for more than twenty years now, and this week, I had the opportunity to deliver one of the keynote addresses at the 30thAnnual TASS Conference.
My topic, Next Gen Strategies for Developmental Educators, was meant to offer some encouragement to these Herculean Heroes of Higher Education who devote their lives and careers to working with at-risk students, predominantly at our nation’s community colleges and non-selective public and private universities.
And it went something like this:
Next Gen Strategies for Developmental Educators
I’m going to begin with a question that I asked a couple hundred faculty and staff at my own institution, Northern Essex Community College, a couple months ago:
How many of you are doing the same job, in the exact same way, that you were doing it 10 years ago? Please raise your hand.
Five years ago?
Not too many takers there.
It’s a bit of a trick question. Very few jobs have been unchanged by technology, the economy, automation, customer behavior, and a thousand other things over the past decade—including higher education.
We’re surrounded by change all the time, and quite often change can be good. I mean, does anyone here really want to go back to the days of manual typewriters, mimeograph machines, and overhead projectors?
No, thanks, I’ll take my MacBook Pro and iPhone any day of the week over those dinosaurs.
But even when change turns out to be good, it isn’t always easy when we’re going through it, right? Particularly if we don’t feel like we have a hand in controlling our destiny.
This is a room full of developmental educators—the Herculean Heroes of higher education.
What you do every day is lift up the lives of millions of the most at-risk, disadvantaged, and often underprepared students on college and university campuses across the country.
And, you are also right in the center (or, some might say, in the bullseye) of some of our nation’s most radical and far-reaching educational policy changes in more than a generation.
Individual faculty, academic departments, colleges and entire state higher education systems are seeking to restructure, reduce or even remove what they sometimes call “remedial” coursework and wraparound services from campuses.
But even in the midst of tremendous changes, those millions of students still need the teaching, support, and compassion that developmental educators like you are uniquely qualified to provide.
The good news is, the best changes that are happening in the field of developmental education right now are the changes that are being driven by developmental educators.
They are based in rigorous research about what works, and they are having a positive impact on student success.
And—those changes are rooted in the incredible dedication you as developmental educators have to the students you serve.
Before we get to some of those “Next Gen” strategies that are working, let’s take a look at how we got to where we are today, and let’s start with this question:
Are all people the same?
No, of course they aren’t. People are different from their appearance to their personalities, from their backgrounds to their abilities, and countless other ways.
Are all students the same?
Absolutely not. Students are people, and like people, they are all different, from their native languages to their academic preparation, their preferred learning styles to their work and family responsibilities while they are in our classes, and a myriad of other ways.
The people, the programs, and the colleges in this room are all engaged in some of the most important work in all of higher education: taking some of the most at-risk, under-resourced, and under-served students in America and helping them succeed.
This, my friends, is missionary work, and you deserve America’s appreciation and a very big round of applause!
Now, here’s another question for you:
Well, that’s also a bit of a trick question:
Of course, all students are born. The good news is, if you’ve been born, you have the potential to succeed!
Successful students, besides being born, are also made. And here’s where our challenge comes in, right?
Not all students are born, or made, equally, are they?
Equality often means that everyone is different, but faces the same barriers, which frequently isn’t fair.
Equity may mean that everyone is different, and has resources to overcome barriers, which can help “level the playing the field.”
Reality, as we know it, usually means that everyone is different, has different resources, and different barriers, which can prevent them from ever succeeding.
And Ideality may offer the best way forward: Everyone is different, and we work together to remove barriers.
To put this in some sobering, real-world terms: What is the greatest predictor of socioeconomic success in America?
The answer: Socioeconomic success in America.
Whether or not your family is already successful is becoming the greatest predictor about whether you will be successful.
In other words, your zip code.
Raj Chetty is a Harvard University economist who has been making quite a name for himself analyzing “big data” from the U.S. Census Bureau, the Internal Revenue Service, the Integrated Postsecondary Educational Data System (IPEDS), and other sources.
For example, he created an “Opportunity Atlas” that visually demonstrates socioeconomic mobility.
This picture, for example, shows household income in 2014-2015 for people born between 1978 and 1983 to low-income parents.
In areas that are more red, people who grew up in low-income households tended to stay low-income. In areas that are more blue, people who grew up in low-income households tended to make more money.
One of the distressing features of Chetty’s research is that, while children born in the ‘40s and ‘50s were almost guaranteed a better life than their parents, only about half of the kids born in the ‘80s can expect to do better socioeconomically—and we seem to be moving in the wrong direction.
When you know this, it’s not at all surprising that the most elite colleges in America have the best rates of student success. After all, they are starting with the wealthiest, best prepared students in the first place.
The most selective colleges enroll more students from the top one percent of the income distribution than from the entire bottom half.
The most elite, selective private universities in America (like MIT) spend, on average, $70,000 annually for each student they enroll. Meanwhile, selective, public, flagship universities (like UMass-Amherst) spend $40,000; typical private universities (like Merrimack College) spend $30,000; average public universities (like Salem State) spend $20,000; and community colleges like NECC spend only $13,000.
Every other segment of education, including public K-12 and vocational high schools, spends more to educate students who, among the more selective institutions anyway, already have more.
Needless to say, “Varsity Blues” is not a problem that affects very many of us in this room, right? Anyone here recently faced with the dilemma of whether or not to accept a bribe to admit an underprepared student into one of your colleges or programs?
That’s OK. Because the good news is that your colleges and universities are probably doing much more to move Americans up the ladder of socioeconomic opportunity than any of the institutions involved in the recent “Varsity Blues” scandal.
America’s first community college, Joliet Junior College, was founded in 1901 by J. Stanley Brown, the Superintendent of Joliet Township High School, and William Rainey Harper, President of the University of Chicago, who recognized that some students in what was then the rural countryside outside of the Windy City needed to stay closer to home for a while to better prepare themselves for the rigor of junior and senior level courses at the University of Chicago.
In other words, developmental education—helping students climb the socioeconomic ladder—is in the creation and the very DNA of America’s open-door institutions.
Raj Chetty, the same Harvard economist who created the “Opportunity Atlas” also helped create a database that shows how successful higher education institutions like ours are at social mobility.
- The median family income for our students is $52,900, among the lowest in Massachusetts (where the cost of living is also much higher than in other parts of the country).
- About 18% of our students are from the bottom 20% income percentile, among the highest proportion in the state.
- After their education, 20% of our students move up two or more income percentiles, one of the best improvement rates in the Commonwealth.
In fact, out of 76 colleges and universities in Massachusetts, NECC is 14th, and third among community colleges, at helping students pursue the American Dream, and find careers, incomes, and lives for themselves better than where they started.
Tufts, Boston College, and Harvard? They lag way behind in 64th, 70th, and 71st place. Only about 11% of their students manage to move up two or more rungs on the socioeconomic income ladder.
Our TASS host college, Broward, right here in Fort Lauderdale, performs even better!
- The median family income for Broward students is only $41,100.
- About 20% of Broward students are from the bottom 20% income percentile, among the highest proportion in the country.
- After their education, 25% of Broward students move up two or more income percentiles, one of the best improvement rates (16thout of 78 colleges) in Florida.
You can explore this database for yourself and discover that nearly every institution in this room, whose students are poorer, less prepared, and have fewer support resources when they get to campus, outperforms the wealthier, more selective higher ed institutions in their states.
And that is largely thanks to you.
But the reality is, it’s still not enough, right?
Nationwide, just over half of the students who begin a college degree end up graduating. And despite our success at helping some students climb the socioeconomic ladder, and after decades of well-meaning attempts to help underprepared students get ready for and succeed in college, we know—and increasingly the public knows—that our efforts haven’t been enough.
Nearly two-thirds of entering community college students and more than a third of those starting at less-selective four-year colleges are found, though placement testing, to be not ready for college-level math or English classes, according to the Community College Research Center.
For decades now, these students have been directed to developmental classes they have to pay for, but don’t get academic credit for. The CCRC found that, of students referred to three levels of remedial math, only 17 percent completed the sequence within three years. For reading, the rate was 29 percent.
Study after study has shown similar results.
That’s why, for quite some time now, reasonable questions have been asked about whether there may be more efficient and effective ways to prepare students with developmental needs.
After all, as we all know: “If you keep on doing what you’ve always done…you’ll keep on getting what you always got,” right?
And, “If nothing changes…then nothing changes.”
Our two main challenges seem to be these:
- First, that too many students who do not need the help are being placed into developmental courses.
- Second, that the structure and traditional way of teaching those courses seems to pose barriers to student success.
In some places, the response to these two challenges has been for states to pass laws, or for entire higher educational systems to make policy changes that seek to completely overhaul developmental education.
Three states—Florida, Texas, and California—where community colleges in particular are well integrated into some of the largest higher education systems in the nation, have taken a legislative approach to reforming developmental education.
- In Florida, placement exams and pre-college developmental courses became optional in 2013.
- In 2017, Texas began requiring colleges to use corequisite models of education, in which any student enrolled in pre-college developmental coursework must simultaneously be enrolled in the corresponding college level gateway course.
- And in California, legislation was passed in 2017 that required colleges, by 2019, to eliminate placement testing entirely.
Just three weeks ago, the California Community Colleges Board of Governors adopted new policies that eliminate placement testing for recent high school graduates, and instead rely on high school transcripts for placement.
Florida, Texas, and California have been joined by dozens of other states around the country which have taken a legislative approach to reforming developmental education.
Not surprisingly, though, it appears that these reforms have worked best where they have taken the time to explain the need for change and engage front-line developmental educators like all of you here in the room in the change process—at the campus level, the system level, and at the state level.
As a result, here are some of those promising “Next Gen Strategies” that most of you here at TASS are either already involved in leading, or are thinking about launching now:
For decades now, we have relied on placement tests, ones we have developed ourselves, or commercial products like Accuplacer or, until a few years ago, Compass, to tell us whether and how well-prepared students are for the rigors of college reading, writing, and mathematics, and to help us “place” them in the appropriate college level or developmental course.
This has all been done with the absolute best intentions, in the hopes of helping underprepared students get ready for, and pass, English Composition I, College Algebra, and other “gatekeeper” courses.
We have always known that there are problems with these standardized tests. They rarely align well with what K-12 standardized tests are measuring while students are in high school, and sometimes not even with the college level coursework we are offering. And, of course, a single “off day” taking a placement test can land a student in a semester or more of costly, pre-college coursework that they may not need.
But for a long time, they seemed better than nothing.
It turns out, we may have been wrong about that.
A number of studies have shown that up to a third of students placed in developmental courses on the basis of standardized test results would have been successful in college-level classes, and that other indicators of college readiness, such as high school performance, provide a more accurate measure of college success.
This is why Florida and other states and colleges have moved toward alternative tests, or making testing optional altogether.
The Center for the Analysis of Postsecondary Readiness recently surveyed more than a 1,000 colleges and universities to discover how many are experimenting with innovative ideas around developmental education.
When it comes to using measures other than standardized tests to place students in courses, they found a 30% increase in the number of colleges experimenting with placement methods between 2011 and 2016.
The good news is that it may be working.
Take the story of Guam Community College:
And just a few weeks ago the Center for Postsecondary Success at Florida State University reported that the state’s comprehensive developmental education redesign that began in 2014 is showing some impressive early results.
Though, as Matt Reed, the blogger who writes “Confessions of a Community College Dean” for Inside Higher Ed, joked, “If there’s one thing that any decent American political scientist knows, it’s not to trust early results from Florida.”
Still, some of the important gains reported by Florida State University include:
- Fewer students enrolling in developmental reading, writing and math
- More student enrolling in college level introductory courses (especially math courses)
- Passing rates in developmental courses remained relatively constant
- Cohort-based passing rates in English and math courses increased
- Cohort-based passing rates for black and Hispanic students increased at greater rates than white students
- Total first-year credit hours attempted and earned increased for all students
- Black and Hispanic students experienced greater gains in college-level credits attempted and earned, compared to white students.
If our ambitions as developmental educators are to get more underprepared, underserved students into and successfully through college by striving for equity and ideality, then abandoning standardized placement tests in favor of alternative testing methods, may be an important strategy to consider.
Of course, determining which courses to place students in is only the beginning of their educational journey with us.
For at least the last couple of decades, large numbers of students, particularly at community colleges and nonselective state universities, have enrolled in at least a semester, and sometimes three or four, of developmental coursework before being allowed to take college level general education classes, or classes in their major.
But we all know what happens to most students who take this pathway.
As this chart from the Community College Research Center shows, only one out of ten students who have to take three semesters of developmental math courses ever completes the college level gateway math course.
Results for developmental writing and college level English Composition are not much better.
That Center for the Analysis of Postsecondary Readiness survey of colleges experimenting with innovative ideas for developmental education also revealed:
- 76% of colleges are still using the traditional developmental prerequisite series of courses for math and 53% are still using developmental prerequisites for writing and reading
- However, growing numbers are also using alternatives to the prerequisite model, such as compressed courses, multiple math pathways, integrated reading and writing, and corequisite models
Corequisite Course Model
One of the most powerful tools in our toolbox right now seems to be Corequisite Courses as an alternative to the traditional Prerequisite Course model.
In the Corequisite Course model, students with developmental needs still enroll directly into a college level course, and they also receive academic support, such as additional, mandatory, classroom or lab instruction, tutoring, or supplemental instruction.
In some models, students may also enroll in both a developmental and college level course at the same time.
The results can be pretty dramatic.
In 2016, Complete College America analyzed the Corequisite Remediation work going on in five states: Colorado, Georgia, Indiana, Tennessee, and West Virginia, and found that students who enrolled in one semester or even one year of corequisite courses were passing college level gatekeeper courses at a rate 40% or more better than students who followed the traditional prerequisite model.
Roxbury Community College near Boston was experiencing the same dismal passing rates for developmental math students that most of us experience—anywhere from 20-40% of students who began in a developmental math course ever passed a college level math course.
They ran a pilot program for two years in which a group of a couple-hundred students took both the developmental and college level math courses at the same time, and found their passing rates climbed by 20% or more.
By summer of last year, Roxbury was no longer offering stand-alone developmental math courses: all students take the co-requisite classes now.
Alternative Math Pathways
Since we’re talking about math, be honest: How many of you, when you look at this slide, feel your heart racing, your hands trembling, and your palms starting to sweat a little?
Math anxiety, right?
For a long time, regardless of their major, the “traditional” mathematics pathway for college students has been the calculus track: Algebra, Geometry, Trigonometry, and Calculus.
Helpful if you are going to be an engineer or a physicist. Not so much if you are going to be a nurse, history teacher, social worker, or journalist.
But by requiring the calculus sequence, we diverted a LOT of students who might have otherwise been successful in college into a pathway that buried them deeply in remedial coursework, and more time and expense than they could sometimes afford.
Most didn’t make it.
Alternative math pathways provide different choices for different students, based on their career interests.
In Massachusetts, my institution, Northern Essex Community College, was one of the first to begin experimenting with alternative pathways, back in 2011.
The entire state of Massachusetts jumped on board a few years ago, and produced a set of recommendations that included these two:
- Massachusetts institutions of public higher education should develop at least four math pathways: Calculus, Elementary Education, Quantitative Reasoning, and Statistics.
- Students who require remediation should have the opportunity to complete their college-level mathematics course within one year of enrollment, preferably within a co-requisite model.
Around the country, colleges and state systems are finding that these alternative math pathways can be very effective: A report last year from the Center for the Analysis of Postsecondary Readiness and the Education Commission of the States discovered that students who are offered alternative pathways are nearly 50 percent more likely to pass college-level math than are traditional developmental students.
There are a number of other Next Gen Developmental Ed strategies that you and others around the country have been experimenting with that are showing promising results with changes to the curriculum and how we offer it in the classroom, including:
And in addition to what we teach and how we teach it, the way we support students with developmental needs is evolving in positive ways as developmental educators take charge of the way their jobs are changing.
On my campus, one of the best examples of developmental educators taking charge of the way their jobs are changing is our Academic Coaching Center, which has evolved from what used to be our Reading Center.
Not too long ago, Northern Essex Community College used Accuplacer to assess students’ readiness for Math, Writing, and Reading, and to place them in a sequence of developmental courses that sometimes required them to take two or three semesters of pre-college work.
We had labs for each subject area, including Reading, where students were required to spend time outside of class completing additional assignments and getting tutoring assistance.
As we began to experiment with alternative placement methods, corequisite models, and other “Next Gen” innovations like the ones I’ve been describing, we nearly eliminated stand-alone Reading classes. For the most part, they are now integrated into “Reading, Writing and Reasoning” or “RWR” courses.
And as we phased out Reading courses, we no longer needed a Reading laboratory.
But, we had some talented developmental educators who still had a lot to offer students, so, led by the former Coordinator of the Reading Center, they converted themselves into the Academic Coaching Center, where they now work with students using their current class assignments to help them develop better study habits such as:
- Time Management
- Organizational Skills
- Effective Study Skills
- Note Taking
- Goal Setting
- Strategies to Overcome Test Anxiety
They began with students on academic probation and athletes who needed additional support, but have been developing a word-of-mouth reputation among the general student population.
Last semester, they had over 1,000 visits, and their fastest growing student populations are referrals and returning students from prior semesters.
The good news is that they are finding that students who take frequent advantage of coaching, especially those who attend the center at least five times a semester, complete more credits and have higher GPA’s.
And the students aren’t the only ones enjoying success. Most of the Reading Center tutors converted into academic coaches, and according to the Center’s coordinator, job satisfaction soared.
The mantra for the coaches and their students is, “This is my happy place!”
The work we are doing today is not the same as the work we were doing ten years ago—and it’s not the same as the work we will be doing ten years, or even five years, from now.
But however much that work changes, we are at our best when we are playing to our strengths, and for developmental educators, the Herculean Heroes of higher education, that means your knowledge of how people learn, your mastery of your subjects, the trusting relationships you develop with students, and your commitment to meeting them wherever they are, and helping them get to where they want, and need, to be.
Thank you, developmental educators, for all you do.