Dawn Overton returned to college early this year, a mother of five boys looking for a career change and less time on her feet after 22 years as a nursing assistant.
“I guess it’s a life-changing experience for me,” Overton said. “All my kids are graduated and only one is left at home. I decided I would change my career.”
It had been 26 years since the 45-year-old had sat in a math course, but in January she found herself surrounded by fellow students, many as young as her sons, at Wallace State Community College in Dothan, Alabama, where she now is working on an associate degree to be an administrative assistant.
“I hated math. It was terrible for me in high school. In high school, I dreaded math class,” she said.
According to the community college, she needed to brush up on those math skills before working on her degree. But instead of starting with remedial courses, Overton jumped straight into math at the college level, with the aid of a one-hour course meant to help her be successful with the coursework.
“I was very thankful for taking that lab course,” she said. “It helped out a lot.”
Overton’s placement in the college-level course with a companion course, called a co-requisite, is part of a developmental education redesign launched by the Alabama Community College System in 2018-2019. The revamped program combined co-requisite courses — essentially one-hour workshops or seminars that give students additional time to practice basic skills — with a tiered placement model that sought to reduce the overall number of students placed into developmental education programs.
In Washington, community colleges have experimented with changes to remedial courses, but reforms have moved slowly. Earlier this year, a report called for making college-level courses the default for all Washington community colleges.
Alabama’s redesign, community college leaders said, has not only been effective at keeping more students on track to gain degrees but also proved to save students money and time and help educators better identify students who need additional support.
Those lessons — in broad, systematic change over several years as well as suggestions for individual educators helping individual students — will be crucial in helping both returning and first-time college students navigate another fall semester during the pandemic.
“It is learning support at exactly the right time you need it to be successful,” said Vicki P. Karolewics, president of Wallace State.
Developmental coursework a barrier
Before the redesign, Alabama’s community college applicants were placed in math and English courses based on standardized tests or placement tests. People who scored below certain thresholds were automatically put in developmental education courses, which could mean two or three semesters of remedial math or English before moving on to college-level courses and earning credit toward degrees.
A student could go through four courses of developmental English before making it to college-level courses, Karolewics said.
A task force studying the problem in 2017 found those layers of developmental coursework were a barrier for many students, who would become discouraged and drop out, according to Brad Fricks, director of academic affairs for the community college system.
Karolewics, who led the task force, cited research by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University that indicated traditional placement tests were doing a poor job of placing students in developmental course tracks.
“It is sort of like the nightmare you have when you are (running) toward something, and the distance you are running toward gets longer and longer. That is the traditional way that developmental education has worked. As a result, they just stop their race, they stop running,” said Stephen Pruitt, president of the Southern Regional Education Board.
The losses have been a pervasive issue for a “very long time” across the state and the country, Pruitt said.
“Frankly, it has cost the state, the institution, and the student a tremendous amount of money without a return on investment,” he said.
Pruitt praised Alabama’s strategy.
“They made this commitment and decide to stick with it. As result, you are seeing more students have the persistence to get through those early courses which are often the biggest barriers,” he said.
The co-requisite courses let the students feel success at a college level, educators said.
“They were seeing that when there were so many courses, it took so long, it was an obstacle for students,” Fricks said. “National data showed if they had a little bit of support, they could take a college-level course and not have to go through the entire developmental course load.”
Traditional placement tests offer a snapshot of the student’s ability; the colleges used them to slot students into either remedial or traditional college tracks. But the default assumption in the new model was that every student should be in a college-level course, Karolewics said.
The tiered placement method considers ACT scores, then a student’s high school GPA and appropriate grades, with a placement test as a final option, Fricks said.
That lets the colleges take a holistic approach to the student’s record, according to Karolewics.
“It gives them multiple opportunities to demonstrate that they need to be placed in developmental education because we presume they are ready for college-level education,” she said.
The system fully implemented the program in the 2019-2020 school year and reduced the number of developmental course sections it offered.
The placement changes coupled with the co-requisite courses have allowed the two-year campuses to take students on the brink of testing into a college-level course out of developmental education classes, said Eddie Pigg, a member of the task force who worked on designing the co-requisite model for math. Pigg is the associate dean of institutional research & academic advancement at Southern Union and was chair of the mathematics department in 2019.
“Accelerating them forward was reducing the number of developmental students we have seen,” Pigg said. “We have seen a good many students who are now taking a credit-bearing college math course, who, historically, could not have done it out of the gate.”
The change has helped reduce the time and money spent by students which helps them advance in their college careers, according to Fricks.
After implementing the combination of the tiered placement and co-requisites, the system reported a 43% decrease in students enrolled in developmental English and a 32% decrease in students enrolled in developmental math.
System officials cite the percentages of students passing college-level math and English courses, which remained stable and increased in some cases, as evidence the shift in placement strategy had been successful.
Enrollment in developmental English courses decreased from 9,338 in 2017-2018 to 5,284 in 2018-2019, according to data provided by the Alabama Community College System. The enrollment in the developmental courses decreased again in 2019-2020 by 54% to 2,393. Enrollment in developmental math courses decreased from 19,849 in 2017-2018 to 7,715 in 2019-2020.
The percentage of students who passed the English course improved from 73.16% in 2017-2018 to 73.66% in 2019-2020 according to ACCS data.
The percentage of students who passed one of the three college-level math courses improved from 61.89% in 2017-2018 to 66.37% in 2019-2020, according to ACCS data.
At the same time, enrollment in introductory composition courses and math courses remained the same or increased, despite overall community college enrollment declines.
“You have had the student who would have had to go into developmental course, they are able to go into a college-level course and still do well,” Fricks said. “If it had not worked, you would have expected to see the college level success rate go down but that is not what we saw.”
Karolewics cites the contrast between the sections offered in 2010 at Wallace State and last fall to illustrate the impact of the change.
In 2010, there were 17 sections of developmental English courses. Last fall, Wallace State offers two sections of a combined English and reading developmental course, and nine sections of the one-hour co-requisite that accompanies the introductory college composition course.
Karolewics estimated the streamlining of the system has saved students $157,000 in tuition for developmental courses.
The changes in developmental math course offerings represent about $406,000 in tuition savings, Karolewics estimated.
The system kept developmental courses for the students who truly need it, Fricks said. But for others who just need extra help with the college-level math and English courses, there is the one-hour co-requisite course.
For one hour a week, students enrolled in the co-requisite classes go to a smaller class, preferably with the same teacher from the regular math or English course, and get extra help, Fricks said.
The instructors are encouraged to have a mixed class of students in the co-requisite courses and those who were placed in the college-level course without it, Fricks said.
Overton said her math instructor’s teaching style made her feel more comfortable asking for help.
“She (the instructor) could read my face and said I could ask her or meet after class,” Overton said. “She would explain in a way I understood.”
The students got one-on-one help as they worked through homework assignments and class problems, Overton said. She had a similar experience when she took the English 099 co-requisite course at Wallace State earlier this year. It’s the sort of help that wasn’t part of Overton’s first college experience right after high school.
It’s important for instructors to be flexible and tailor classes to students’ needs, said Meredith Sides, an English instructor and Division Chair for Humanities & Fine Arts at Northwest-Shoals Community College.
“The co-requisite class really gives the student the space to be in a safe environment,” said Sides, who was also a member of the system task force, and who also builds in time for discussion about careers, advising and campus resources.
The ‘best model’ after a pandemic year
As the COVID-19 pandemic spread and colleges went remote in early 2020, Fricks said he worried about students in co-requisite and developmental courses.
At Southern Union, as the campus pivoted to remote learning, success rates in math courses decreased about 10% across the board, Pigg said.
The drop wasn’t a complete surprise. Typically, students in-person do about 10% better than their peers who are enrolled in online coursework, Pigg noted. The decrease tracked with the department’s historical experience with online learning.
Instructors were flexible and did the best they could in the situation with remote learning, he said. Colleges systemwide increased tutoring and options for remote access.
The assumption that the disruption of the last year would leave some students behind in their learning is understandable, Karolewics said.
Under the old model of remedial education, as the pandemic went on, a traditional placement test might have put many more students in a developmental class to account for stresses and possible gaps in their pre-college education, she added.
“But at the same time, if you think about what we know about students who graduate high school, they have learned how to learn, and I think that is incredibly important in placing them in college coursework,” she said.
Karolewics believes the co-requisite courses and tiered placement process is the best model for high school graduates following a pandemic senior year.
This fall, Karolewics said Wallace State isn’t anticipating more demand for developmental courses. While the college may see more demand for co-requisite courses after last year, Karolewics said Wallace State currently has the same number of sections scheduled as last fall.
“At this point in time, I think it is too early to know,” she said.
Sides had a similar assessment at Northwest-Shoals. It’s difficult to speculate about what will happen this year, she said.
“I think the faculty members are very aware of the fact that we may be facing some of the same challenges we faced last year,” Sides said.