Reassessing the Costs and Benefits of Developmental Education

Reports over the past several years from the Lumina Foundation, Complete College America, and other policy and research groups have documented the high cost of developmental education, measured not only in dollars spent but in student attrition rates. In fact, "Core Principles for Transforming Remedial Education," a recent joint statement and meta-analysis provided by the Charles A. Dana Center, Complete College America, the Education Commission of the States, and Jobs for the Future, reported that:

  • Half of all undergraduates (and 70% of students enrolled at community colleges) take at least one remedial course.
  • Only about one quarter of community college students who take a remedial course graduate within eight years.
  • On average, less than half of students in remedial reading courses complete the remedial sequence, and only one third of students in remedial math courses complete that remedial sequence.

The Cost of Providing Developmental Courses

Not only do developmental courses fail badly at their purpose—that of remediating gaps in student learning so that academically underprepared students can register for first-year courses with a higher degree of successfully completing them—developmental courses also drain considerable institutional resources. Given that half of all entering students are placed in at least one developmental course, the costs of providing this instruction are significant, with colleges in the US investing as much as an estimated $1.4–$2 billion a year in the effort (though the Alliance for Excellent Education estimates an even higher total cost of $2.8 billion a year).

A study of the costs at Ohio's public institutions found that these colleges spent approximately $15 million teaching 260,000 credit hours of remedial courses to 20,000 freshmen over the course of a year.

Last year, the Texas legislature appropriated $206 million in general revenue funds for the instructional costs of developmental education for public institutions.

Other Costs to Consider

Laura Hope, dean of instructional support at Chaffey College, frames the issue a little differently, noting that as a community college, her institution has a "moral imperative" to preserve access. "We can't allow students to languish, term after term, in developmental courses," Hope argues, "because these students are then, without progress, occupying seats at the institution that could go to new, incoming students."

There is a cost associated with each incoming student, a cost that can be measured in classroom space, faculty time, and support services. When considering the financial impact of developmental education on your institution, Hope advises: "Rather than think about tuition and revenue, think about assets. We see the availability of a seat as an asset that we can measure. We may not be able to quantify this to an exact dollar figure, but it is clearly a crucial asset, and we need to think about the cost of preserving that asset."

"The more students who complete their degree or certificate, the more new students you can enroll."
Laura Hope, Chaffey College

The Picture Doesn't Have to Be This Grim

When we surveyed academic leaders on the issue, respondents expressed some degree of resignation over the inefficacy yet apparent necessity of remedial courses. Two-thirds of respondents felt that it was a priority to address the issue, but nearly all of the academic leaders who did were looking to address the problem through additive support services, such as peer mentoring and student tutoring, or advocating for more resources to be allocated to the writing center or the math lab.

Hardly any of those responding to our survey indicated that revisiting either placement of academically underprepared students or revamping the model for the developmental education curriculum were on the table.

Yet there is overwhelming data to suggest that the traditional model for delivering a developmental education sequence is both broken and costly. Why continue to pour dollars—and students—into a model that doesn't work? There are proven and attested alternatives.

Chaffey College's attrition numbers used to look like the national average—until they overhauled their developmental education program, beginning in 1999. Since then, their success rate has grown about 36%, with 69% of their students enrolled in developmental courses earning a C or better, and with 68% of their students following up on success in one course with success in the course following it.

Tristan Denley, provost at Austin Peay State University, cites similar gains. Prior to his redesign of Austin Peay's developmental curriculum, only 30% of entering students were able to complete their core math requirement within 2 years; after the redesign, that number increased to 67%. For the core English requirement, that pre-redesign completion rate was 54%; after the redesign, 76%.

Martin Golson, Austin Peay’s director of academic support, notes that moving students more quickly into credit-bearing classes increases the percentage of students who persist and ensures that students are spending their tuition dollars on courses that will count towards their graduation requirements.

There are proven models for restructuring developmental education, with documented impact on tuition dollars, attrition rates, and student success rates.

In This Issue of Higher Ed Impact: Monthly Diagnostic

Why Rethinking Developmental Education is a Priority: A Letter from Amit Mrig, Academic Impressions
Reassessing the Costs and Benefits of Developmental Education

Placing Students in Gateway Courses: A More Informed Approach
A Fresh Look at the Developmental Ed Curriculum