The Pandemic Will Leave More Students Unprepared For College. Developmental Education Must Help.

Nov 30, 2020

Nearly 20 million students were projected to attend an institution of higher education in the United States during the fall 2020 semester, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. However, due to COVID-19, colleges are experiencing a 13 percent decline in freshman enrollment as of November, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center recently reported. Specifically, community colleges are experiencing the worst decline, with a nearly 19 percent drop.

This reality—combined with recent survey findings that metropolitan K-12 school districts are experiencing a 1-to-5 percent decline in student enrollments—is sure to negatively affect student success, college preparedness and workforce development.

This is especially true for students from lower-income families. Roughly 21 million people in the U.S. suffer on the no-internet side of the digital divide, according to the Federal Communications Commission. And this spring, 60 percent of low-income parents expressed that their children are likely to experience at least one digital obstacle doing their K-12 homework online. Despite in 2019 the U.S. poverty rate being 10.5 percent—the lowest since estimates were first released for 1959—COVID-19 has now significantly eroded that progress, harming Native Americans, Blacks, and Hispanics the most.

Educators and legislators must remember that the key to closing the poverty gap in this country and alleviating citizen need for social services is educational attainment, which opens the door to social and economic mobility through employment. However, in order to close this gap, developmental education (previously known as remedial education) must be recognized as a linchpin in preparing people for college and careers and for shoring up our country’s economic sustainability.

Reforming Developmental Education

According to the Community College Research Center, developmental education is essentially a “reteach” of high school and junior high school reading, writing, and math. Based on entry exams or multiple measures assessments, nearly two-thirds of entering community college students and more than a third of students entering less-selective four-year colleges are assessed as lacking the math and language skills necessary for college-level placement, according to research published in Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research. These students are typically referred to one, two or even three courses of developmental education, which serve as a gateway to college-level courses and ultimately degree attainment.

Or, at least that used to be the case. However, research from the last decade shows only 28 percent of community college students who take a developmental education course earn a degree within eight years, and many students assigned to developmental courses drop out before completing their sequence and enrolling in college-level courses.

This, understandably, presented a grave concern for business and industry, legislators, educators and ultimately students. According to the Center for American Progress, students paid $1.3 billion dollars out-of-pocket nationally and $920 million at two-year colleges during the 2013 to 2014 school year to take developmental courses—courses in which just more than one-in-four students prove to be successful. From an economic and racial equity standpoint, students of color were affected greatly and disproportionately.

Due to this reality, reform was demanded. As a result, states started defunding developmental education. This crippled some institutions’ ability to provide remedial courses and forced a number of key reforms that resulted in incentive-based funding and streamlined educational pathways.

For example, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board adopted the Developmental Education Plan in support of its overarching goal to have at least 60 percent of Texans ages 25 to 34 earn certificates or degrees by 2030. The plan called for the implementation of corequisite course opportunities for students who may need developmental education. Essentially, these courses allow students to take credit-bearing courses at the same time that they take developmental education courses to improve their skills.

Ultimately, as published by Complete College America, “Corequisite remediation is doubling and tripling gateway college course success in half the time or better.”

How Developmental Education Can Strengthen America

As of 2016, Complete College America reported that 18 states were slated to scale co-req programs to streamline student preparedness toward college-level instruction. However, the opportunity for developmental education innovation is relevant in every state of this country.

It is important to note that there are many co-req models for consideration, including those that offer paired courses, extended instructional time, accelerated learning programs, academic support services, and technology-mediated supports. While each model provides its own strength, the larger opportunity is to recognize the variation available to academe to address the educational attainment equity gap.

COVID-19 has accelerated and exacerbated many of the shortcomings in our society and education system. Two areas for sure: poverty and inequitable academic achievement. As this country moves to recover from this global pandemic, strengthen its infrastructure, bridge workforce gaps and address poverty on a large scale, educational attainment must be at the forefront of the national agenda.

The data provided earlier regarding the implications of COVID-19 on academic access suggests that more students will undoubtedly experience more learning gaps due to the disruption of the pandemic. As educators, it is important that we increase our level of urgency and pivot quickly to prevent loss in the progress we’ve made over the past two decades toward more-equitable education. Failure to do so will only compound the disparities present, particularly with our low-income communities.

While not a silver bullet, developmental education serves as an underappreciated yet highly significant tool in addressing the learning shortfalls experienced by traditionally underserved students, including students of color. With an undeniably large number of U.S. students being assessed as less-than-ready for college even before the current health and economic crisis, we must adopt united efforts to implement co-req models across the country. By streamlining the path toward educational attainment, we also strengthen the path toward our country’s recovery.


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