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Moving Away from Non-Credit Developmental Education to Support Student Retention and Success

The EvoLLLution | Moving Away from Non-Credit Developmental Education to Support Student Retention and Success
Non-credit developmental education has been a topic of debate and concern in higher education circles for decades. In California, the CSU system is eliminating these offerings, favoring academic support embedded into college-level classes for students who need it.

In a sweeping move to improve how students receive academic support in their first year of college, the California State University (CSU) system recently eliminated remedial—or developmental education—perquisites in favor of more effective models. The traditional approach to developmental education requires non-credit-bearing prerequisites for students who are deemed underprepared academically. These prerequisite courses do not count toward a degree, and this model has been under scrutiny for the last decade for being a barrier to student success. The CSU’s new policy, which also retools the methods used to gauge college readiness, instructs its 23 campuses to embed academic support into college-level courses for students who need additional academic support. 

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What impact does the current approach to remedial education have on students?

James T. Minor (JTM): The traditional approach to ­developmental education has a significant impact on a student’s first-year experience.  Students relegated to developmental education at the beginning of their college careers are far less likely to graduate—in some cases, upwards of 20 percent less—than those that enroll directly into college courses. Even students who do make it to graduation end up paying more and taking longer to earn their degrees. This has significant financial consequences and requires nearly one-third of our entering class to enter at a deficit. A growing body of evidence also suggests students who complete developmental education prerequisites are no better prepared for college-level courses than they would have been if they enrolled in them directly, suggesting that this traditional model may not be the most effective for serving students.

The other significant impact that comes with assigning to students developmental education is that it invites them, perhaps unintentionally, to question whether they belong in college. Every year, the CSU accepts nearly 65,000 first-year students—one-third of which are the first in their family to attend college. Approximately 40 percent of entering students are identified as not ready for college coursework and directed to non-credit-bearing prerequisite courses with pre-college material.  Students long remember the sinking feeling of when they are informed that they are accepted, but not quite ready to take college-level English or math. It is not uncommon for these students to drop out, given the alternative is to continue through a system that puts them in a deficit at the very beginning of their college careers.

Evo: What are a few tactics the CSU will put into place to help students avoid the remediation pitfalls while still ensuring they are prepared for college-level work and on track to succeed?

JTM: The CSU is addressing academic preparation for incoming students in a variety of ways, including strongly recommending four years of high school math for incoming students. Stronger high school preparation will greatly improve the likelihood of succeeding in college math courses.

The CSU has also expanded the measures used to more effectively assess college readiness. A growing body of evidence calls into question the over-reliance of standardized placement exams to determine college readiness and course placement in the first year. In light of this, the CSU will seek ways to identify additional data points that consider how students perform in the classroom. These additional measures may include high school GPA and high school course-taking patterns in conjunction with standardized exam scores from assessments like the SAT, ACT and AP exams.

In addition to eliminating stand-alone developmental education requirements and expanding placement measures, the CSU is also assisting faculty who are redesigning curricular pathways and developing innovative instructional approaches that will help students succeed in first-year courses. Instead of academic preparation standing as a barrier to college courses, CSU campuses will redesign curricula and instruction in college-level courses by attaching or embedding the supports students need to achieve the learning outcomes established by the faculty.

Evo: In what ways can other universities benefit from moving past the traditional approach to remediation?

JTM: The largest gains that institutions can expect to see from reforming the traditional approach is in retention, particularly from the first to second year. The CSU requires students to complete their developmental education prerequisites by the end of their first academic year and must dismiss approximately 3,000 students each year who do not complete their developmental education courses. We expect to significantly reduce this figure starting at the end of the 2018-19 academic year, when the new curricula will be implemented.

Addressing these issues can have significant implications for affordability, which along with strengthening retention, is a strong step toward increasing degree completion.The fact remains that traditional developmental education courses do not count toward a degree—and cost students money. This lack of progress makes it very difficult for the university to retain students into the second year, as students’ valuable financial resources are being used up for little progress toward graduation. By minimizing the number of students taking non-credit prerequisites, there can be a significant cost savings for students by allowing them to enroll in college-level courses sooner.

Evo: What are a few of the most significant roadblocks you and your colleagues have had to overcome to get past traditional remediation?

JTM: The most significant hurdles we faced in this process were identifying where improvements could be made and developing a system-level solution that could be implemented across all 23 campuses, serving highly diverse populations across the state. Implementation at 23 campuses raises a host of issues to be considered. In this particular case there is a significant need for systemwide professional development for faculty and campus leaders to help facilitate the work that needs to be accomplished.

Any significant change at one university is difficult, and developing one for a 23-campus system was a particularly challenging endeavor. Significant cultural changes like these require consultation with all stakeholders. The magnitude of the CSU system presented a significant challenge in this effort, given the time required to organizationally process such a sweeping change.

Evo: What is the CSU hoping to achieve in the short- and long-term with these changes?

JTM: Our goal with these changes is to make sure that students begin their college careers on the right track, with the academic support they need. These changes will likely produce results soon after their implementation in the 2018-19 academic year. Because all first-year students will be enrolling in general education courses in their first semester, we are expecting to see students earning more credits in the first year—which is a key factor in retention into the second year. Looking into the long term, the CSU has articulated highly ambitious goals through the Graduation Initiative 2025. Moving away from standardized placement tests and toward multiple measures falls directly in line with the Graduation Initiative, which is the CSU’s flagship student success campaign. By 2025, the CSU system aims to double the four-year graduation rate and significantly increase the six-year graduation rate for first-time freshmen. Graduation targets for transfer students have also been set.

Aside from graduation rates, the Graduation Initiative also seeks to completely eliminate equity gaps, which are outcome and performance gaps between traditionally underrepresented students, first-generation, and low-income (Pell-eligible) students and their respective peers. In 2014, these gaps were as high as thirteen percentage points, and this effort will continue to be a major priority for the CSU, which is both the largest and most diverse public four-year higher education system in the country.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the reforms the CSU is bringing to the table to improve student success and increase graduation rates?

JTM: I think it is important to emphasize that these changes to the CSU are being implemented to improve the overall student experience, and are by no means a mechanism to “water down” our academic standards or fast-track all of our students to graduation. The graduation requirements for CSU degrees have not changed, but we have drastically changed our approach to serving students who need additional academic support upon entry.

There has been a considerable amount of thought and planning leading up to this point, which has included extensive consultation with our faculty and campus administrators. Non-credit developmental education perquisites have long been a concern in the higher education community, and with this move, the CSU will join many other states around the nation—like Tennessee, Georgia, and just recently, Texas—in making meaningful strides toward improving student success and retention.

Our main goal with the Graduation Initiative, and with student success in general, is to give all CSU students the opportunity to earn their degree programs in four years—or two years for transfer students—should they want to and be willing to put in the effort. It is our obligation to remove any barriers that may hold students back due to their backgrounds or the circumstances from which they come. That’s what this change and the Graduation Initiative 2025 are all about.