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For far too many community college students, remedial education is where their college careers begin – and end. Their need to take catch-up courses in subjects never mastered in high school remains one of the most intractable obstacles to community-college graduation. Some students repeatedly fail the classes, running up debt or cutting into financial aid without moving closer to a degree.

Some three out of five community colleges students take at least one remedial – also known as “developmental” – course, designed to bring them up to speed on what they need to know before enrolling in college-level courses. Fewer than a quarter of community college students earn two-year degrees within eight years, according to a longitudinal study by the federal government.

The frustration of studying material taught in elementary- and middle-school courses leaves students – many of whom are older and also working – much more likely to drop out than those who don’t have to enroll in remedial classes. Meanwhile, questions persist about how effective remedial education is, says Thomas Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University.

The consequences of spending so much time and money on remedial education are exacerbated at a time when President Barack Obama is pushing more students to complete degrees and help the U.S. regain its competitive edge. The Alliance for Excellent Education estimates that the U.S. loses $3.7 billion a year because students aren’t learning basic skills they need to succeed before they get to college.

“Remedial education has largely been a barrier to success,” Martha Kanter, U.S. Under Secretary of Education, said during a September 2010 conference of community college researchers and experts at Teachers College. “We’ve seen students just fall out of the system, and we can’t allow that to happen.”

The high costs, uncertain outcomes and frustrations of students and educators alike are one reason why the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has focused on the need to revamp remedial education. It is pouring more than $110 million into creating new and more effective models. The foundation also gave four cities $3 million each to help them better align academic standards and curricula between high schools and colleges, and to increase the percentage of students earning postsecondary degrees or credentials. (Disclosure: the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is among the many funders of The Hechinger Report.)

Research has helped identify some persistent trends as well as new and promising models, including giving students extra support in reading and revamping placement exams that aren’t aligned with what students learn in high school, according to a recent report by WestEd in California.

Only 31 percent of students placed into remedial math ever move beyond it, according to the Community College Research Center, and particular groups of students – including men, part-timers, older students, African Americans and those in vocational programs – are much more likely than others to struggle in such classes.

Research has helped spur new retention initiatives, as community colleges nationwide rethink their entire approach to remedial courses, with more institutions trying to move students quickly into college-level work. Tutors, mentors and small-group instruction are all on the menu, as are computer labs with diagnostic and practice exams the students can take at their own pace.

Learning communities,” in which groups of students take two or three classes together that are often connected by common themes or questions, are one promising way to improve student success, says Syracuse University professor Vince Tinto, who is researching their impact.

Kingsborough Community College, in Brooklyn, New York, with help from the Robin Hood Foundation, has experienced promising results after expanding learning communities to build student networks and study partnerships that allow students more opportunities to engage with professors and stay on campus longer to discuss subjects or work together in groups.

Valencia Community College, in Orlando, Florida, has developed specialized remedial student support centers and skills classes, and it provides paid mentors for students. Throughout the U.S., a range of new student success programs are under way and showing some promise as well, including I-BEST, or Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training, which integrates instruction in basic skills with instruction in college-level professional-technical skills to help students advance more quickly in their careers and toward a degree.

Bergen Community College, in New Jersey, revamped its remedial math program and pushed up the school’s pass rates in remedial math by 15 percentage points in two years. South Texas College is paying more attention to what happens in the classroom and has compressed arithmetic, introductory algebra, and intermediate algebra into two courses instead of three, while also increasing the number of hours spent in class and the computer lab. Additionally, the school allows students to retake placement tests at any time and pass out of remedial math altogether.

The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching is also helping community colleges develop a shorter, alternative route into statistics for non-STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) majors, in a push to get students who normally place into elementary algebra to and through a college-level statistics course in a year.

The need for remedial education remains particularly acute. In areas with large populations of non-English speakers, some 90 percent of students may need the extra help. And while public four-year colleges are estimated to spend more than $1 billion annually on remedial education, substantially more community colleges – which have far fewer resources – are tackling the bulk of remedial education, in part because they can do so more cheaply.

That’s led to another issue community colleges are grappling with. More than half of community-college courses are taught by part-time, adjunct professors who typically make $1,000 to $3,000 per course and who don’t get benefits, says Hunter Boylan, director of the National Center for Developmental Education at Appalachian State University in North Carolina. The widespread use of adjuncts has led to questions about the quality of adjunct faculty, who are largely untenured and often have little to no training in or experience teaching remedial classes.

“Very few community colleges spend the money to train adjuncts in teaching development education courses,” Boylan says.

Rita Giordano of The Philadelphia Inquirer and freelance writer Elizabeth Redden contributed to this story.

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