Postsecondary Trending Now: College Affordability, Developmental Education

Editor’s Note: In this monthly series, NGLC staff share their reflections on recent news and reports in the field of next generation learning at the postsecondary level.

Let’s call this month’s review of recent news and reports…eclectic. First, I take a look at the plan President Obama put forth in his college affordability bus tour two weeks ago. After that, I describe some interesting approaches to transforming developmental education that were discussed in a webinar hosted by the American Youth Policy Forum this summer.

Making College Affordable

Late last month, President Obama toured New York and Pennsylvania to present his plan to make college more affordable. You can read a transcript of his speech at the University at Buffalo. Or you can get a snapshot of his plan with this nifty infographic put together by the White House. In his speech, he called for a new college ratings system based on the best value to students and taxpayers, more innovation to make college high-quality and affordable in ways that encourage student success, and student debt that is manageable and affordable.

Obama proposed to tie federal financial aid dollars to these new college rankings that would look at criteria such as average debt, on-time graduation rates, and outcomes for students with Pell grants. Watch for a series of public forums on the issue. And read some of the commentary already out about this aspect of the plan in Education Dive, Huffington Post, and the New York Times, among others. College rankings are problematic in and of themselves that I doubt that yet another ranking system—one coordinated by the federal government, at that—is a good solution. But I could get behind a national focus on value over inputs like selectivity—and a healthy debate over such a ranking system might help spur that kind of focus.

When describing the need for greater innovation to improve graduation rates, lower costs, and maintain quality, Obama gave a shout-out to NGLC grantee Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America:

“So let me talk about some alternatives that are already out there. Southern New Hampshire University gives course credit based on how well students master the material, not just on how many hours they spend in the classroom. So the idea would be if you’re learning the material faster, you can finish faster, which means you pay less and you save money.”

Southern New Hampshire’s breakthrough model isn’t just about being affordable and efficient, though. While it’s true that students can more quickly demonstrate the competencies that are their strengths, College for America also helps personalize the learning experience so that students can navigate through the degree program in the pathways that are most helpful to them. Students can then spend the amount of time they need to spend on other competencies—whether it’s just a little more practice and study or a deep dive into something entirely new or particularly challenging with targeted support.

The third prong of the President’s plan—to make student debt manageable and affordable—is to expand eligibility for loan repayment caps so that more students can benefit. Time will tell where the nation’s exploration of college affordability issues will take us. And we anticipate that institutions awarded NGLC grants for their breakthrough models will help us understand the role that competency-based, personalized, online and blended learning models might play in making college more affordable.

Transforming Developmental Education

This summer, the American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF) hosted a forum entitled “Transforming Remedial Education to Improve Postsecondary Attainment” with Katie Hern of the California Acceleration Project, Tristan Denley of Austin Peay State University, and Matt Gianneschi of the Education Commission of the States on a panel moderated by Stan Jones of Complete College America.

Dr. Hern sees attrition as an unintended byproduct of developmental education, which disproportionately affects students of color. She presented two approaches used in California’s community colleges that have improved completion in the first college-level credit-bearing course (aka the gateway course): cutting two semesters of English remediation into an accelerated one-semester course, and tailoring remedial course requirements to a student’s intended program of study, so that, for example, humanities students would enroll in pre-statistics instead of algebra if they are in need of math remediation.

At Austin Peay State University—a member of the inaugural cohort of the NGLC Breakthrough Models Incubator, by the way—students in need of remediation still enroll in the math gateway course but are required to take additional workshops, explained Dr. Denley. This approach has resulted in higher pass rates both for the gateway course and for higher-level math courses. For students who are in need of remediation in English, mandatory reading support workshops are paired with a gateway history course.

Dr. Gianneschi talked about policy, in particular the connection between K-12 and higher education policy, of which developmental education is a linchpin. Improvements in developmental education can benefit from supportive dual enrollment policies, policies that meet the needs of typical students – part-time students in need of financial aid who transfer from one college to another at least once – and policies that support increasing high school graduation rates.

The forum relied upon Core Principles for Transforming Remedial Education, a joint statement issued last December by the Charles A. Dana Center, Complete College America, Education Commission of the States, and Jobs for the Future. The statement offers seven principles that the organizations believe will lead to students successfully completing college-level work.

If NGLC participated in the panel, we might have highlighted the potential role of technology to support these transformations in developmental education. For example, NGLC grantee Chattanooga State Community College worked with Education Trust to redesign developmental mathematics at three community colleges using Do the Math.

Do the Math provides students with learning resources in an online environment and instructors become facilitators of learning instead of lecturers; the program has demonstrated positive outcomes on gateway math course completion similar to those described by the California Acceleration Project and Austin Peay State University on the panel. And in the spirit of K-12 and higher education collaboration noted by Dr. Gianneschi, Chattanooga State Community College—in partnership with the Tennessee Board of Regents and the Tennessee Department of Education—has introduced a version of Do the Math in high schools across the state. You can read more about this SAILS project in a blog post by the project’s director, John Squires.

Technology is only an enabler, and with or without it, what’s most important is that students get the preparation they need to be successful in college-level learning. I’m heartened to see this kind of forum that raises awareness of the need for improving developmental education and offers examples of strategies that work.

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