Developmental education, sometimes referred to as remedial education, describes coursework at colleges and universities that is intended to fill in knowledge and skill gaps for students deemed unready for college-level coursework. To date, an estimated 1.7 million college students are enrolled in some form of developmental education—more than 50 percent of first-year students in two-year colleges and 20 percent in four-year colleges. Developmental coursework does not grant college credit, so students enrolled in these courses are not actively moving towards a degree while enrolled in them. This is especially noteworthy in light of the number of students who continue to pay tuition, but never earn college credit: four out of ten community college students placed into developmental education never finish these classes and move on to credit-bearing coursework, and fewer than one in ten earn a credential.
Given the low success rate of students required to enroll in developmental courses, one might assume that these students are markedly different from their peers who do not require remediation, but research indicates otherwise. When students identified for developmental coursework choose to skip these courses and proceed directly into credit-bearing work, they go on to earn credit at a markedly higher rate than their peers who chose to enroll in remedial coursework, and at only a slightly lower rate than those who did not qualify for remedial coursework. Research suggests a number of possible explanations for this discrepancy, including the accuracy of the assessments that initially place students into developmental coursework (see below) and the need to redesign developmental education curricula.
Work to solve the problems of developmental education spans from high school through to community colleges and four-year universities. At the high school level, state and local systems are taking a variety of approaches to increasing students’ readiness for credit-bearing college coursework. A few of these approaches include: adopting college and career ready academic standards; collaborating to align academic expectations between high schools and higher education; and adopting a system of early warning indicators and interventions, which assess students’ college readiness midway through high school and then provide intervention for those who are not deemed on track to be ready by graduation.
At the college level, two strategies for increasing the effectiveness of developmental education are: a) redesigning developmental coursework, and b) replacing the developmental courses with other support models. In the case of redesigning coursework, while there is no clear consensus on the most effective curriculum, the majority of these redesigns have focused on pedagogical improvement (e.g., personalized learning, focus on critical thinking, etc.). Other institutions in the process of replacing developmental coursework altogether have adopted models that directly place underprepared students into credit-bearing coursework while providing individualized, co-requisite support. In addition to redesigning support systems, many colleges and universities are redesigning course placement policies, moving away from placement exams and toward multiple measures of student readiness.