Divided We Learn

Why are many students with ‘A’ averages being barred from college-level classes?

Remediation is still the rule, despite research showing its limitations

If community colleges are going to be the new pathway to the middle class, they have a lot of work to do, according to a new study.

They offer degrees that can help low-income and first-generation students gain a foothold in an increasingly competitive job market, yet for years community college graduation rates have remained low. Despite research showing reforms that can improve those rates, most colleges haven’t put those changes in place, the new report shows.

For example, a recent wave of research suggests that placement exams are ineffective at judging whether students are ready for college-level work – yet 87 percent of community college students say they are still required to take these exams.

Even more striking, the report found that 40 percent of students who had an A average in high school were placed into remedial classes.

And while there is increasing evidence that remedial education courses act more as obstacles than gateways to graduation, the vast majority of colleges still adhere to that traditional model.

Still, “Expectations Meet Reality: The Underprepared Student and Community College” shows that some colleges have shown significant improvement using models that could be fairly easily replicated and don’t require loads more money.

“There’s been a lot of innovation, and sometimes it comes across as though things are really changing, but this report is really a reality check,” said Evelyn Waiwaiole, the director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin, which produced the report and released it Tuesday.

Related: How a state where community colleges have been an afterthought is turning that around

Most students – 86 percent of the 70,000 surveyed – believed they were prepared for college when they first enrolled. Nonetheless, 67 percent tested into “developmental education” – remedial courses that students are required to take before they can enter college classes. Students don’t earn credits for most developmental education classes, but still have to pay for them, and they often eat up the financial aid provided by federal Pell grants.

Students also seemed unaware of whether they were earning enough credits to graduate, the survey showed. While 76 percent of students believed they were on track to graduate on time, in fact only 39 percent of community college students earn any degree within six years.

That confusion could be due to a continuing lack of counseling for a big chunk of students. Even though studies have shown the necessity of structured support for community college students, 56 percent of students said they had never met with an academic advisor who helped them to create a plan to reach their academic goals.

The report highlighted some places where reforms were helping. At some colleges, students were more likely to pass introductory English and math courses when high school GPA (rather than a test) was used to decide whether to put them into remedial courses.

Related: Why are graduation rates at community colleges so low?

At Davidson County Community College in North Carolina, for example, students who were placed using their high school GPA were more likely to pass the college’s introductory courses in math and English than those who were enrolled based on standardized exams, like the SAT or ACT. The trend held true for all racial groups. Among African-American students there who were placed based on their GPA (2.6 or higher), 65 percent passed their English introductory course, compared with 48 percent of African-American students who were placed by using SAT, ACT or placement exam scores.

Several colleges reported better pass rates when they didn’t require students to take and pass remedial classes before having access to college-level classes.

Butler Community College is scaling up a program in which students take a college-level course at the same time as they take the developmental class. Last spring, pass rates jumped to 67 percent for those students, compared with 39 percent for those who took the remedial class first and then entered the college-level course, as has been traditionally done.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about Higher Education.

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Meredith Kolodner

Meredith Kolodner is a staff writer. She previously covered schools for the New York Daily News and was an editor at InsideSchools.org and for The… See Archive