Ed Department: Half of community college students need remedial classes


Duncan spoke at Montgomery College in Silver Spring, Md.

Community colleges should tailor remedial curriculum for students who are unprepared for introductory English and math courses, and in some cases, developmental classes “hinder” student progress, according to a report released by the Education Department (ED) during an April 27 virtual symposium.

ED Secretary Arne Duncan and Second Lady Jill Biden spoke to educators and students at a symposium broadcast on the internet from Montgomery College in Silver Spring, Md., a two-year school with more than 60,000 students on three campuses.

ED officials and educators who led sessions at the symposium outlined “bridge programs” for adult learners who want to return to college after many years in the workforce, and customizing those remedial classes that come with high costs to colleges, students, and taxpayers.

ED released the report to coincide with the symposium that said as much as 60 percent of incoming community college students enroll “in at least one developmental education course to bring their reading, writing, and mathematics skills up to college level.”

Developmental classes that help new community college students catch up with their peers can be critical to earning a degree, according to the ED report, but remedial education “may not improve students’ persistence or completion rates and, in some cases, may actually hinder their progress toward educational goals.”

A more flexible slate of remedial class options on two-year campuses would have educators pinpoint precisely where a student needs improvement, said Shanna Smith Jaggars, a senior research associate at the Community College Research Center in New York.

Targeting specific academic vulnerabilities, Smith Jaggars said, would allow a student to move through remedial classes quickly without redundant lessons that lead to high drop-out rates among remedial students.

“We need a system that diagnoses student weaknesses and determines which areas require quick redress [that] gives students less opportunity to get disheartened and a chance to drop out,” she said.

Early intervention was stressed by several speakers who addressed remedial classes in community colleges. College officials and policy analysts said summer bridge programs would help high school students prepare for college without having to enroll in non-credit-bearing remedial courses.

Duncan and Biden, as they have since President Obama entered the White House in 2009, said continued help – including federal funds – for two-year colleges would help unemployed Americans find jobs and prove to be a centerpiece in the country’s economic recovery.

“We flat lined and stagnated [while] other countries have passed us by and I think we are paying a price for that,” Duncan said. “So [as we] try to educate our way to a better economy, community colleges are absolutely going to help lead us where we need to go. … Community colleges have been the unrecognized, unpolished gem on the education continuum. I believe we have come a long way to ending that.”

Biden, a longtime educator and adjunct English professor at Northern Virginia Community College, lauded the Obama administration’s $2 billion community college funding add-on to the health care reform bill passed last year.

ED introduced the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) Grants Program on Jan. 20, inviting community colleges—and other two-year degree-granting institutions—to apply for up to $5 million per institution, or up to $20 million to applicants who apply for funds in a consortium of schools.

ED will dole out about $500 million in 2011, and $2 billion will be distributed in the next four years overall, according to the announcement.

“These funds will support programs that use proven or innovative strategies to prepare students for high-demand careers,” Biden said.

The Obama administration in October invited more than 100 community college decision makers to the White House’s first-ever Summit on Community Colleges, where top federal officials lauded two-year colleges as a bridge to jobs and four-year universities, and a way to lead the world in college graduates by 2020.

Education analysts said last year that the expansion of online classes at two-year colleges would be key in increasing community college enrollment.

Distance-learning enrollment in American community colleges jumped by 22 percent during the 2008-09 academic year, an increase fueled in part by an influx of nontraditional students who require the flexibility of online courses, according to a survey conducted by the Instructional Technology Council (ITC).

The ITC, which is affiliated with the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), collected 226 responses from community colleges in its annual survey, “Trends in eLearning: Tracking the Impact of eLearning at Community Colleges,” which revealed the 2008-09 increase in online enrollment. Last year’s ITC survey reported an 11-percent uptick in web-based class enrollment at community colleges.

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