Rethinking remedial programs to promote the success of college students

Many incoming students are deemed underprepared for the rigors of college-level study and are referred to remedial courses (or developmental education). Up to 65% of community college students complete at least one remedial course within six years of initial enrollment. Black students, Hispanic students, and students from low-income backgrounds are disproportionately placed in these courses. However, due to inaccurate placement and high attrition rates, the traditional approach to remediation—which typically consists of non-credit courses that must be passed before entering college-level courses—seems to have few benefits and sometimes adverse effects. In response, many states and systems have sought different approaches to support students with remedial needs.

Unlike the traditional prerequisite model described above, a popular strategy is “concurrent remediation,” where students deemed not college-ready are integrated into college-level courses with concurrent learning support. As of 2021, 24 states or systems allow or mandate the use of corequisite learning support for students deemed underprepared.

What are the potential benefits of corequisite remediation? As a structural reform, corequisite remediation allows all incoming students to enroll in college-level studies upon enrollment. This avoids a delay between when students enroll and when they accumulate college-level credits that could be applied to a degree. In addition, concurrent remediation sometimes includes elements of curriculum reform. The traditional pre-remediation approach is often criticized for misaligning content with college-level courses, which does not prepare students for further learning and creates barriers to progression. To address this issue, many states and systems have adopted curricular changes when implementing co-remediation. A striking example is that of the mathematics pathways, which allow students to take mathematics courses relevant to their program of study.

In our recent study, published in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, we assessed the effects of the first system-wide corequisite reform in Tennessee. We first used regression discontinuity designs to assess the effect of prior and concurrent remediation on student outcomes. We then performed difference discontinuity analyzes in the regression to compare the impacts of a corequisite approach to the impacts of the traditional prerequisite model.

Finding 1: Concurrent remediation produces better results in bridging courses than the traditional prerequisite approach.

First, we focused on students at the margin of a college readiness threshold that distinguished whether they were placed in coreremediation or prior remediation. Students narrowly placed in concurrent remediation were significantly more likely (up to 18 percentage points) to pass bridging courses at the end of first year, compared to otherwise similar peers who were placed in remediation prior. The differences in outcomes for these groups were clear and significant, and our results are largely consistent with experimental evidence from CUNY and Texas.

Together, the field is reaching a consensus that corequisite remediation is far more effective than the traditional prerequisite approach in helping students succeed in their first college-level English and math courses, especially for those who don’t have missed the threshold of the college level by only a few points. .

Finding 2: Concurrent remediation and direct enrollment in college-level courses produce similar results, with a few exceptions.

We also examined the effects of concurrent remediation compared with direct enrollment in college-level courses without remediation. To do this, we compared the results of students who scored just below the college cutoff (students required to take concurrent courses) with students just above the cutoff (students exempt from any remedial courses) . We found that supporting concurrent learning did not provide many additional benefits – the two groups had very similar bridging course completion rates, among many other outcomes we looked at. This suggests that students at the margins of college-level thresholds would have fared just as well had they been placed directly into college-level studies without remediation. If these students could dedicate the time and financial aid resources for learning support associated with other college-level courses, they might accumulate college credits even faster.

Note one important exception. Associate students were more likely (up to 10 percentage points) to enroll and pass subsequent math courses than their peers directly placed in college-level math without remediation. This is largely due to reforms in the math pathway that guided students toward math courses aligned with their curriculum. The traditional practice for incoming community college students was to take college algebra courses. After reforming the math pathway in Tennessee, students interested in pursuing social science and other non-STEM programs instead took math courses relevant to their majors, such as statistics or math for the arts. liberals. We found the most consistent positive effects on subsequent enrollment in math courses and on student performance in corequisite statistics. This suggests that curriculum reform components are essential complements to remedial reforms, as they cover more relevant content in associated courses and meet the needs of students in their majors.

Finding 3: We see little evidence of long-term effects of concurrent remediation.

Despite these shorter-term effects, concurrent remediation does not appear to have long-term benefits for enrollment persistence, transfer to four-year colleges, or graduation, compared to prior remediation. traditional or direct placement in college-level courses without remediation. . Of the rigorous evaluations of concurrent reforms mentioned above, all but one found no positive impact on completion outcomes. This suggests that improvements in bridging course outcomes are important but insufficient for college-level success.

Community college students face multi-faceted challenges related to basic needs insecurity, social and emotional learning, and balancing college and employment, among others. The type of higher education interventions that have single-handedly improved overall college completion typically address multiple barriers to student success. Repair alone is not enough.

Over the past decade, state systems and colleges have invested in new strategies to improve academic success for academically underprepared students. Concurrent remediation is one of the promising examples that can lead to better student outcomes by removing unnecessary barriers to success. With these encouraging results, state systems and colleges should continue to improve their remedial programs to promote student success and equity in college outcomes.


You can read the full journal article in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis: “The Effects of Corequisite Remediation: Evidence From a Statewide Reform in Tennessee”.

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