Postsecondary Trending Now: Rethinking Remediation

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The statistics are dismal: at least a third of students entering college (and even more at community colleges) are required to take remedial courses based on standardized placement test results. These results indicate that they are not likely to succeed in credit-bearing entry-level courses. Such remedial courses don't carry college credit, yet they do require that tuition dollars be expended.

The very act of taking remedial courses—whether such courses use up students' funds without producing credits that count toward a degree, or because students become discouraged by their slow progress—has been shown to reduce the chances that a student will graduate at all. (Learn more about the frequency of remedial course enrollment in this brief from the National Center for Education Statistics, and explore how remedial course enrollment impedes the acquisition of postsecondary credentials in this MDRC publication.)

What solution(s) might remedy the situation? Earlier this month, six organizations working on student success initiatives joined to release "Core Principles for Transforming Remediation within a Comprehensive Student Success Strategy." The document, which put forth six core principles, offered a central recommendation is that institutions place most students in credit-bearing courses immediately, and provide those who may be at risk of not succeeding with both academic and non-academic support.

Taken together, these principles offer a clear set of steps forward:

  1. Every student's postsecondary education begins with an intake process to choose an academic direction and identify the support needed to pass relevant, credit-bearing gateway courses in the first year.
    The emphasis here is on the positive approach ideally taken by institutions: rather than looking to remedial coursework as the first option, institutions seek to understand students' broad goals and provide them with the necessary resources to succeed in reaching them, beginning in the very first months of postsecondary study.
  2. Enrollment in college-level math and English courses or course sequences aligned with the student's program of study is the default placement for the vast majority of students.
    This principle contains an underlying recommendation: that the number of students routinely assigned to take remedial courses be substantially reduced and that, with support from strong advising and other areas, credit-bearing courses become the "new normal" for students who have traditionally been judged to be underprepared.
  3. Academic and nonacademic support is provided in conjunction with gateway courses in the student's academic or career area of interest through co-requisite or other models, with evidence of success in which supports are embedded in curricula and instructional strategies.
    This principle gets at the nexus of what it will take to enable those whose test results indicate inadequate preparation to succeed in credit-bearing classes: support for the learning within the class and also for the myriad other challenges that many students face as they begin their postsecondary education.
  4. Students for whom the default college-level course placement is not appropriate—even with additional mandatory support—are enrolled in rigorous, streamlined remediation options that align with the knowledge and skills required for success in gateway courses in their academic or career area of interest.
    This principle acknowledges that, even with appropriate supports in place, some students may need an option prior to enrollment in a credit-bearing course. It suggests what such options should be: in particular, what is offered these students should be streamlined and targeted. The options should be tailored to provide what it will take to prepare the students to succeed in their specific desired academic/career areas.
  5. Every student is engaged with content of required gateway courses that is aligned with his or her academic program of study—especially in math.
    A key enabler of student succeed even with potentially challenging content is to align the entry-level course content to their academic and career goals. For instance, students who will not be pursuing disciplines requiring advanced mathematics may not need to study college algebra, but might be better advised to take "gateway courses in statistics, mathematical modeling, or quantitative reasoning" instead.
  6. Every student is supported to stay on track to a college credential; from intake forward, through the institution's use of effective mechanisms to generate, share, and act on academic performance and progression data.
    New technologies offer institutions and their students the opportunity to track students' work in their courses online, be apprised almost immediately if things are going awry, and intervene swiftly to ensure steady progress. Many institutions, including EDUCAUSE's iPASS grantees, are engaged in using these opportunities in their work to integrate planning and advising for student success: risk targeting and intervention as outlined in this principle are key student-facing functions.

Nancy Millichap, Program Officer, Next Generation Learning Challenges