Early Progress in Developmental Ed: Twice the Impact in Half the Time

Postsecondary & Workforce

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This post comes from Strong Start to Finish, an initiative at Education Commission of the States that aims to help colleges and universities increase the number and proportion of low-income students, students of color and returning adults who succeed in college math and English.

For far too long, well-intentioned efforts have diverted students’ dreams of a college education by directing them to developmental education to remediate their academic readiness. While high school graduation rates increased, droves of students failed developmental education courses because the focus was on fixing students instead of reshaping structures to support their success. About a decade ago, experts, leaders and policymakers came together to chart a new course.

These early conversations led to a set of Core Principles at the heart of Strong Start to Finish. Strong Start to Finish focuses on rewriting policies and recalibrating practices to remove structural barriers — large and small — put in place by all members of the campus community.  In 2017, SSTF set out to identify systems leading change at scale and, with the generous support of funders, developed systems called Scaling Sites in 2018.

The initiative is making great progress to dramatically increase the number and proportion of students completing college-level math and English courses in their first year of study (i.e., gateway courses). For the cohort of students that started college in the fall of 2018, 46% completed a gateway math and English course in their first year. According to a 2016 study, when students were required to enroll in developmental education courses, only 22% of students completed gateway math and English courses within two years. Early results are showing that by undertaking reforms such as streamlining or eliminating developmental education, implementing pathways for students and revising placement policies, institutions are doubling the percentage of students completing critical college courses in half the time.

While these numbers are impressive, we are also paying careful attention to various student populations to ensure every student has the support they need to be successful. Currently, completion rates are 42% for low-income students and 40% for adult students. When examined by a student’s race or ethnicity, completion rates varied — for students who are American Indian or Alaskan Native (41%); Asian (54%); Black (36%); Hispanic (43%); Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander (42%); unknown, two or more races or immigrant students (46%); or white (47%). We look forward to improving students’ success in these courses and particularly success for students who are placed in developmental courses more often because of systemic inequities.

Success breeds success. So earlier this year we were able to support seven additional systems of higher education. Termed Strategy Sites, these systems will take on targeted reforms to meet clear goals. We look forward to sharing those outcomes in late 2021. After two years, we published case studies for all six Scaling Sites in a Learning From the Reform series last Friday. In these case studies, you will learn from peer systems of higher education, including their reform timeline, the policy environment that set the foundation for their work, the priority action areas for each system, and the challenges and lessons they learned.

If your state’s system of higher education is interested in undertaking reforms, Strong Start to Finish is a part of your education policy team and stands ready to assist in any way we can.

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Director at Strong Start to Finish | cmullin@strongstart.org

Chris was formerly the director of Strong Start to Finish.

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