Published on 2013/10/25

For Better or Worse: Student Decision Making in Remedial Education

AUDIO | For Better or Worse: Student Decision Making in Remedial Education
A recent change to remedial education legislation in Florida has moved decision-making power from the institution to the students, for better or for worse.
The following interview is with Willis Holcombe, president of Florida State College at Jacksonville (FSCJ). In Florida, state lawmakers passed legislation to make remedial courses optional for high school graduates and active-duty military members. The new approach to introductory-level higher education is highly controversial; proponents argue that remedial classes create barriers to completion while opponents point out that, without these classes, many students won’t be prepared for college-level work. In this interview, Holcombe discusses the new legislation, shares his thoughts on how this changes higher education in his state and whether a middle ground can be found between the two camps.

1. Given the high attrition rate of remedial classes, why is it important for students to take them before entering for-credit classes?

Well, the whole idea behind the non-credit courses — we call them remedial, but if the students hasn’t actually learned the skills, they’re not remedial — they’re actually first-time instruction for some of those students.

They’re to try to address the gap that exists between the skills required for high school graduation and those required for college readiness and, also, because we get a lot of students who are not just out of high school. It is to help adults get ready to get back into a college classroom maybe after five or 10 years away from school.

2. How does pressure from groups like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Lumina Foundation and Complete College America impact the remedial class debate?

The attention of national groups like that has brought a higher level of concern and visibility to the issue. We’re all concerned about the fact that students who do test into remedial education currently at the colleges in Florida and elsewhere, that they have difficulty completing. The good news is if they do complete, our data shows they’re as successful as students who come college ready in the first place to us. But we lose a lot of students on the way.

The national attention to this has helped bring it to the fore and to help legislators and colleges try and figure out a better way to do it.

3. What can institutions do to convince the public, and students in remedial classes, of the value of going through remedial programming before entering for-credit programs?

I’m not so sure trying to convince the public is necessarily the task we should be [going] about. I think we ought to take a look at the legislation, take a look at the concerns about our success rates and try and find a better way. For example, we’re working very hard here at FSCJ, and a lot of our fellow colleges are as well, to improve the way and give students other options. [For example,] rather than just registering for a full-semester remedial education course, they perhaps could do a brush up or they can do an online tutorial or come into one of our academic success centers and take care of some of those issues that way. So, we’re trying to provide options for students and we have been working on that. But I think this legislation now really speeds that up.

The other thing … is that the decision making has been moved from the college to the student. And that’s a huge shift. … Now the students have a choice, and the question is whether they will make an informed choice. Will that choice be made on expediency? … Our concern is that student won’t have good information on which to base that choice. And, unfortunately, the price of failure students pay in college credit courses is significant. It makes it difficult for financial aid and it makes it difficult for them to continue.

From our point of view, we want to try and do as good a job as we can to help students see that we’re not talking about imposing a requirement as much as we are trying to give students a realistic idea of what their skill levels are vis-à-vis college readiness. … We’re going to try and do a better job at advising them, providing them information, and then they get to make the choice. That’s the big change in my mind.

4. How can remedial classes be innovative about increasing retention of students while ensuring students are prepared for college-level work?

Well, I think providing options is one thing; one size doesn’t fit all here. … I also think taking a more prescriptive approach, in terms of having the student be more aware of where their skill deficiencies are and where they are fine. And making them aware will help motivate them to pick the path that works best for them, and we’re going to try and do that. It’s going to cause us to have to develop a whole bunch of predictive kinds of models that we haven’t done before.

5. Is there anything you’d like to add about the legislation to allow students to decide whether or not to engage in remedial classes and how it might impact the overall completion rate?

All of our efforts here, both the legislative efforts and our college efforts here with our faculty and advisors, will help to raise the completion rate. I think we all want that. I don’t think anybody is at it for other reasons than just trying to help students complete.

We will have to be able to adjust methodologies and I would hope the Legislature as well as the colleges take a look at the data going forward so we can find out what works and what works best for students.

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Readers Comments

Eugene Partnoy 2013/10/25 at 9:57 am

Some time ago, there was an interview with an administrator from Baltimore who created a program which blended remedial learning with first-year, for-credit classes.

Why is this not being further explored?

Meghan 2013/10/25 at 12:26 pm

It’s absolutely ridiculous to allow students to choose to forgo remedial classes at their leisure.

In the words of my old high school principal: “You don’t know what you don’t know.”

How can we expect to increase degree completion with underprepared students filing into our classrooms?

Ryan Loche 2013/10/25 at 1:13 pm

Perhaps the best way for students to make informed choices about whether to enrol in remedial courses is to offer a skills test for every student before he or she starts a course or program. This could even be arranged online. I know this is usually done prior to enrolment in language courses, to ensure students are placed at a level appropriate to their skill. I don’t see why this practice couldn’t be adopted for other programs. In this way, students could see for themselves where they are compared to where they should be, and make an enrolment decision based on that.

Bill Davis 2013/10/25 at 3:44 pm

Since the Florida legislation just passed, it’s too early to tell whether the decision making power should rest in the hands of the student or the institution/program department. Holcombe presents the pros and cons of each side well. I’m anxious to see what happens in practice.

Natalie MIller 2013/10/25 at 4:36 pm

There is a real opportunity here, I believe, for the development of a robust online education system that identifies and aids remedial students. Up to now, online courses have mainly been the same as their in-person counterparts, albeit in a different delivery format. However, technology has evolved to the point that there are programs that can track how well a student is doing in the course, identify pressure points and provide interventions (e.g. additional testing, review sessions, etc.) to get the student back on track. All of this can be done without an instructor, although the computer program would likely send an alert to the instructor that there are remedial students in the course. This type of online programming hasn’t been widely adopted by institutions, but it might be time for them to explore it.

Joe Joseph 2013/11/23 at 4:00 pm

This is an issue near and dear to me. in fact, I’ll bet I have a better understanding than 99% of those many individuals who are clueless regardintg the importance of this issue.

For anyone desiring further discussion, I am always available.

A thank you to everyone who has taken time out of their busy schedules to respond to this subject.

Joe Joseph.

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