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What state reforms could look like for college students in no credit developmental courses

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Peter Medlin
/
Waubonsee Community College

Developmental courses are just like any other college class. They cost money, and they often take a full semester. The only difference is that developmental classes don’t earn students any college credit.

It’s not just a few students. Around 40% of high school graduates who start at community colleges are put in at least one developmental education course.

And when students enroll in these courses, it can be really hard to advance, move on and graduate. In Illinois, only 1 in 5 community college students put in developmental ed will graduate.

Lisa Castillo Richmond is the executive director of the Partnership for College Completion. They’re a nonprofit focused on equity in higher education. She says developmental classes often become the first and last stop on a student’s college journey. She says minority students are the ones most likely to be affected.

“Black students are twice as likely to be placed into developmental education courses than white students, she said. "And once they are placed in these courses are significantly less likely to complete their introductory 101 college courses."

In fact, she says, only 18% of Black students finish their 101 math course with a C or higher in three years.

The Partnership for College Completion advocated for the new Developmental Education Reform Act.

Before the act, almost every community college in Illinois still implemented the traditional model for developmental education at some level. But how do students get placed in those non-credit courses?

Typically, a college would look at an incoming student's ACT or SAT scores in math or English. If the scores didn’t reach a benchmark, students would come in for a placement test. And if those scores didn’t reach a benchmark, they’d be sent to a remedial class.

Amanda Smith is the Vice President of Liberal Arts and Adult Education at Rock Valley College in Rockford.

She says, just prior to COVID, nearly 20% of all courses completed at RVC were developmental.

“That's just an astonishing number of credit hours," said Smith, "that students are paying for and enrolled in, that don't go towards their degree or certificate."

She says they were over-relying on high-stakes “ACCUPLACER” placement exams and denying students a chance. Most students who took the ACCUPLACER, failed.

Thanks to the reform law, colleges had to submit plans to the Illinois Community College Board in May detailing how they’re going to change developmental ed policies.

Castillo Richmond and the Partnership for College Completion have been holding workshops for colleges that are changing their remedial courses.

Those reforms happen on two fronts: placement and class delivery. For placement, instead of just looking at standardized tests and placement exams -- consider high school GPA and transitional classes.

Amanda Smith at RVC says they’ve been doing it for a few years. Then the pandemic hit and they went even further -- placement deferral. Students can take up to 12 credit hours-worth of classes before a developmental course. If they were successful in those classes, the college assumes they’ll be fine and waives referral.

“What we found was pretty fascinating," she said. "We found that the students who had completed this deferral form were not having detrimental experiences.”

The new law doesn’t specify what reforms colleges have to make. With class delivery, Castillo Richmond says “co-requisite” models are the most effective.

That’s when students are placed in introductory, credit-bearing classes along with layers of extra support. They might have an additional hour of tutoring after a lab or meet more often with their teacher.

“Colleges are able to determine what that looks like," she said. "But, again, the important part in a co-requisite model is that students are earning course credit and they have additional support that is provided alongside it."

Plenty of colleges already offer co-requisite courses, but usually not scaled up to include most of their developmental ed students.

Jessica Moreno is the dean for academic support at Waubonsee Community Colleges. She says they started offering co-requisite, or “co-req,” courses in 2018.

“We have been increasing the amount of co-req courses, especially in English," she said, "and we have seen lots of success with our English co-reqs."

Moreno thinks that developmental education can still be helpful. She doesn’t think the curriculum is the problem as much as the time they can take. Waubonsee offers condensed courses that take 4-8 weeks instead of the semester.

Over the next few years, colleges will have to report to the state how well their reforms are working. Whatever models colleges end up choosing, Castillo Richmond and the Partnership for College completion hope they’re available to every student -- so developmental ed will no longer be the last stop on their education journey.

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.