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Community College Researchers, Practitioners Gather to Share What Works, and What Does Not, in Developmental Education

“We need to shine a light on what works and scale it,” declared the U.S. Under Secretary of Education for higher education, Martha Kanter, to a gathering  of community college researchers, administrators and faculty on June 21. The conference, “Strengthening Developmental Education: What Have We Learned and What’s Next?” was organized by the National Center for Postsecondary Research (NCPR) at Teachers College.

The Under Secretary, whose remarks launched two days of presentations and discussion about the latest research and practice in developmental education, pointed out that 93 million adults in the United States are at the basic skills level. “Investing in higher education will prevent us from having to invest in building more prisons,” the Under Secretary noted, observing that the U.S. Department of Education needed to do more to align federal funds with evidence-based reforms.

The issue of postsecondary remediation has garnered growing attention in recent years, as the Obama administration pushes to increase rates of college completion.  Currently, almost sixty percent of entering community college students are assigned to remediation, and only around a quarter of them go on to complete college.  Almost 20 percent of students at four-year universities are also in need of remediation. Without improving outcomes for these students, Obama’s college completion goals cannot be met.

NCPR, created with a grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences and led by the TC’s Community College Research Center (CCRC), in partnership with MDRC and the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, set out six years ago to identify effective practices for remedial students by conducting experimental studies on a range of interventions.  Over the two-day conference, NCPR and other scholars presented their research findings.

Overall, the interventions had varying levels of success.  Some, such as summer bridge programs and learning communities, had only modest short-term effects on student achievement. Others, such as developmental acceleration, and the Accelerated Study in Associate Program (ASAP) at the City University of New York, are associated with robust improvements in student outcomes.

CCRC’s Shanna Jaggars presented findings from four studies indicating that accelerated developmental models—such as shortening developmental sequences and mainstreaming upper-level developmental students into college-level classes—are associated with significant increases in college-level pass rates for participating students. MDRC’s study of CUNY’s ASAP, in which students enroll full time, receive additional financial support, counseling and advising, and take “block-scheduled” classes, found positive impacts on student persistence, credit accumulation and full-time enrollment.

A recurring theme at the conference was the fact that small pilot programs in remedial instruction will not have enough of an impact to substantively move the needle on college level outcomes.  For community colleges to significantly improve completion rates for remedial students—and indeed, for all students—colleges will have to implement ambitious and comprehensive reforms that reach a wide segment of the student population, and address the whole student experience through to graduation.

Near the close of the conference, NCPR and CCRC director Thomas Bailey provided a dose of reality—and a note of optimism—when he observed how far we’ve come in our understanding since the founding of NCPR six years ago. “Until very recently, we had no idea what the problems were in developmental education,” Bailey said.  “It is unrealistic to think we could land on a solution in just a handful of years.”