It takes a special kind of courage and stamina to get unstuck from initiatives and policies embedded in a decade of practice. But that’s what Jobs for the Future wants postsecondary education to do – get unstuck. Few would argue that it is a good thing for a student to use their Pell Grant on three terms of courses and leave college without a credential or college credit, but that is precisely what is happening to many of the students who test into multiple levels of developmental education. Increasing completion for these students a complex challenge with no easy solution says Michael Collins.
The biggest lesson we have after ten years of empirical evidence in Developmental Education is this: there is little to no association with what we’ve been doing and college completion.- Michael Lawrence Collins, Associate Vice President, Postsecondary Policy at Jobs for the Future.
He thinks there is some “good work” going on in many states, especially for students who are just a level or two below college ready. “We’re seeing co-requisite models that mainstream students directly into credit courses with supports that are getting results.” The Accelerated Learning Program (ALP) at Community College of Baltimore County is on example. A Community College Research Center (CCRC) study found that ALP produced strong results.
Collins is cautious about one size fits all, sweeping mandates and suggests we experiment. “We are at a point where we can test different models and use analytics to see what really works. There’s really very little to lose when you look at our limited current success rate,” he says. But it’s early… CCRC, MDRC, and other research organizations have done studies to determine the impact of new models that offer less linear ‘one size fits all ‘ approaches, but thus far Collins says the problem remains multi-dimensional and hard to measure. He points to a study, Bringing Developmental Education to Scale, which evaluated the Developmental Education Initiative (2009-2012) funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Lumina Foundation.“ Researchers found promising practices, but not enough evidence to point to anything causal,” says Collins.
No Single Solution or One Size Fits All
Completion by Design and other funded initiatives are creating pathways that have the potential to be scaled and sustained over time. Hotly debated legislation in Florida recently banished all traditional development education and replaced it with four mandated models – modular, compressed, contextualized, and co-requisite – all accelerated. “Regardless of how you feel about mandates, implementation of the new legislation will provide us with some new knowledge what works to accelerate developmental students to college credit courses with greater speed. CCRC’s analysis of Achieving the Dream’s dataset showed us students three levels below college ready were able to pass a course, they just couldn’t complete the entire sequence – it has to be accelerated,” said Collins.
In states that have implemented models that mainstream developmental education for students, Collins says he often hears faculty lamenting that their students are no longer getting the supports they need to be successful in college. “It’s ironic and tragic,” he says. “The faculty truly care about the welfare of developmental education students, but in many cases they are holding on to the traditional way higher education serves developmental students when the evidence is clear that the traditional approach doesn’t work.” Nikki Edgecomb’s research at the Community College Research Center has documented that many attempts at developmental education redesign still mimic the traditional model and continue to fail. “There’s still a big room, a lot of students, one lecturer and they haven’t fundamentally changed the content or much about the delivery. We have a huge hurdle to clear in changing how we think about this,” said Collins.
He sees programs that make him hopeful like Washington’s I-BEST (Integrated Basic Education Skills Training) with team-teaching, and contextualized skills based on occupational interest to engage and retain students. While this model primarily serves Adult Basic Education students, there are implications for students who test multiple levels down in developmental.
The Road Ahead: Three Suggestions
So with the research and initiatives he has seen, what would Collins suggest to build better on-ramps for students needing additional support? He offers three ideas, in his own words:
(1) “I would definitely use multiple measures of assessment. Too many students get locked into developmental education based on a single high-stakes instrument. We need to look at multiple measures including the non-cognitive – motivation, resilience, and what they can commit — are they going part-time and can we move that to full-time?
(2) I would advocate for very deep advising. Students need help understanding the curricular cost and time decisions about the pathways they select. They need help with goals, and understanding the labor market implications of their choices. They should know probability of earnings, probability of courses transferring to other degree programs or schools, and the probable time to completion. In Connecticut they showed all students the financial aid available for full-time and were able to move students from part-time to full-time for a better chance at successful completion, more quickly and with less debt.
(3) I would like to see customized interventions with lots of support. We can’t put students in models we hope they can access. We have to meet them where they are, with the abilities they have. We need better research about what works, and for what kind of student. We’ve been at this for 30-40 years with consistently low success outcomes. It is critical that we see some progress because peoples’ lives are affected.”
A Call for Equity
For Collins, it’s a question of human capital. “We say as a democracy that people have these inalienable rights, and we have to live up that,” he says. “The people impacted by the developmental education reform are largely from low income communities. We can’t just walk away and say ‘we tried, it didn’t work.’ If there is strong evidence that we have to make changes, I’m okay with making changes, evaluating, tracking and monitoring as we move along. We can learn as we go, and when we find something that really works, we can find a way to pay for it. The failure rate on this has been so catastrophic we just can’t lose much by trying – it’s not a risk adverse scenario. It all has to change.”
Collins admits to being humbled by the work, because of its daunting complexity and the stamina it’s going to take to find the right answers. “It’s critical we find a path to success for these students,” he says. “They can’t help where they live or that their schools didn’t have resources, or highly-skilled teachers. And returning adults have few other alternatives to which to turn for brushing up their skills to access college-level credentials. There is a lot of focus on this right now. We have this moment to figure this out or people will become fatigued and lose interest.” He calls for united hearts and minds, infrastructure as a priority, and policy to support the work. He also urges funders who helped put developmental education in the spotlight to stay in the conversation and, with all involved, commit together to finding new, better solutions as we all change the way we think about getting these students into and through college in what Collins admits is as much an equity as an access challenge.
Michael Collins, is Associate VP, Postsecondary State Policy with Jobs for the Future. He advocates for state policies on behalf of national initiatives including Achieving the Dream, Completion by Design and the Developmental Education Initiative.