False Narratives, Not Data, Drive Reforms in Higher Education
Alexandros M. Goudas July 2020
Anecdotes are powerful. Stories sway people’s opinions far more than one might expect. Once narratives are repeated by a critical mass of reputable media sources, it is difficult to counteract them, even if they are not true. Narrative-based statements eventually sound self-evident due to a phenomenon termed repetition bias. Examples in politics abound, and even noted economist Robert Shiller (2019) understood the power of narratives and their potential influence on large-scale social structures such as financial markets:
New crises that shake up the economy often surprise economists because no exogenous cause appears to be a sufficient explanation for a downturn. People begin to suddenly frame current events in the context of stories they had heard many times before. This may seem puzzling until we realize that an old narrative has renewed itself in an epidemic, and people have begun to respond reflexively in their day-to-day decisions. If enough people begin to act fearfully, their anxiety can become self-fulfilling, and a recession, sometimes a big one, may follow. (para. 22–23)
Therefore, even something as critical and as large as the economy can be affected by a narrative, true or false. Higher education is no less vulnerable to the impact of narratives. Policymakers and practitioners often latch on to appealing or seemingly intuitive narratives to explain negative postsecondary outcomes and argue for reform. This paper explores two common false narratives, not based on data, that are driving many current reforms in higher education. These reforms, especially when accompanied by the resulting elimination of remediation and developmental education, can be harmful to millions of current and potential college students. Before implementing any reform, it is critical to understand whether a false narrative is driving the change or whether there are existing data that suggest alternative modifications might be more effective.
False Narrative: “Students Get Bored or Frustrated in Developmental Education and Drop Out”
One of the most common and pernicious false narratives in higher education, particularly among two-year public college theoreticians and in the media, is that remediation and developmental education is boring and frustrating, and that this is one of the primary causes of students stopping out. This narrative has been repeated innumerable times in research and media over the past decade.
For example, a Hechinger Report (Field, 2019) article typifies what can be routinely be found in the media: “Many students who start in developmental classes never make it to credit-bearing courses, much less to graduation. Bored or frustrated, they drop out after a couple of semesters” (para. 35–36). Another article (Marcus, 2012) from the same educational reporting organization cited Community College Research Center (CCRC) data from a seminal Bailey et al. (2009, 2010) report: “More than 75 percent never graduate—in many cases, the researchers say, because they drop out from boredom and frustration” (para. 2–4).
Hanford (2017) in The New York Times, also citing this seminal CCRC research (Bailey et al., 2009, 2010), claimed,
Students were more likely to get a bachelor’s degree if they skipped remediation altogether and went straight to college-level classes. Why? Researchers aren’t sure, but they suspect that many students assigned to remedial education, which costs money but doesn’t count for credit, get frustrated and give up on college. (para. 5–6)
Another article by the same author in American Public Media (Hanford, 2016), whose title refers to remediation as a “trap,” cited Peter Adams, creator of the original corequisite model for English, the Accelerated Learning Program (ALP): “[Students] were quitting, he realized, because they got discouraged. ‘A lot of students would say to us, “You know, I’m not even sure that I am college material,” said Adams'” (para. 107).
As noted, much of media reporting on this subject stems from CCRC research on Achieving the Dream (ATD) students. Bailey et al. (2009), in a working paper, claimed, “As it stands now, developmental education sequences must appear confusing, intimidating, and boring to many students entering community colleges. And so far, developmental education has at best shown limited success” (p. 28). In the published version, Bailey et al. (2010) rephrased the same section this way: “The developmental education process is confusing enough simply to describe, yet from the point of view of the student, especially the student with particularly weak academic skills who has not had much previous success in school, it must appear as a bewildering set of unanticipated obstacles” (pp. 255–256).
The characterization of remediation as “boring” in Bailey et al. (2009) is based on a scholar whose work on remediation centered on students in the California Community Colleges System, Norton Grubb. One of Grubb’s qualitative research designs involved observing 169 remedial classes in California. Grubb (2013) summarized this and prior research on remediation in a disparaging manner: “The point for the moment is that remedial pedagogy is insidious, affecting not only classroom instruction itself but also the textbooks, computer programs, and certain support services that shape and supplement the classroom” (p. 71).
Grubb (2013) continued: “Sometimes instructors circulate to provide individualized attention, but without giving other students anything to do; in these cases students quickly get bored and restless. So basic instructional techniques are often weak” (p. 55). He then concluded with a call to action: “The fact that [conventional approaches] are both uninspiring and in violation of the precepts for high-quality teaching presented in chapter 1 highlights the need to search for alternatives” (p. 75).
The central flaw in Grubb’s (2013) research is that he did not observe similar college-level courses taught by adjuncts or full-time instructors to understand whether poor pedagogical practices are endemic to all levels of postsecondary instruction, which is highly probable. More importantly, perhaps colleges’ reliance on contingent faculty (i.e., adjuncts) for the instruction of remedial courses is the primary culprit. Most scholars agree that adjuncts have diminished support in their efforts to teach these courses (Feldman & Turnley, 2004). Grubb relegated both of these confounding factors in his research to a few sentences. Surprisingly, Grubb instead focused on generalizing a small number of instructor observations and labeling it as one all-encompassing term, remedial pedagogy, and then characterized all of it as “insidious” (p. 71).
These scholars and the media reporting on remediation and developmental education outcomes are drawing the conclusion that the coursework itself is causing boredom and frustration, and that this is a primary driver of stopouts and low completion rates. The data, however, show an entirely different cause.
What Do the Data Say About College Stopouts and Non-Enrollees?
The boredom and frustration levels that students purportedly feel in remedial and developmental education courses have been designated as the primary cause of low student completion in college (Bailey et al., 2015; Grubb, 2013; “Remediation,” 2012). However, research strongly suggests that this cause is perhaps one of the least important factors in college students withdrawing from college or not enrolling.
Johnson et al. (2011) highlighted common myths surrounding college dropouts: “Myth No. 1: Most students go to college full-time. If they leave without a degree, it’s because they’re bored with their classes and don’t want to work hard.” The authors then addressed this false narrative: “Reality No. 1: Most students leave college because they are working to support themselves and going to school at the same time. At some point, the stress of work and study just becomes too difficult” (p. 5).
Moreover, Zhai & Monzon (2001) noted that “financial difficulties (22.8%)” and “conflict with work schedule (22.3%)” were the top two reasons students did not enroll in college after applying. Regarding students who withdrew, “conflict with work schedule (31.0%)” and “personal reasons (21.1%)” were the two responses that characterized the majority of students who left college. “Dissatisfaction with instruction (14.3%)” took the sixth and lowest-ranked spot among reasons for stopouts (p. 13).
Crosta (2013) found that older students, who comprise up to a third or more of students at the typical two-year college, stopped out more often, mainly due to having life responsibilities: “Older students face substantial challenges. Compared with younger students, they are more likely to be married, working, have children. Older students thus have tighter time and financial constraints” (p. 1). Notably, Crosta also found that students who persisted and students who stopped out were very similar in their academic preparedness levels, i.e., remedial placement: “In terms of secondary school credentials, there were very few differences between early drop-outs and early persisters” (p. 2). In other words, since students who stopped out early were no different in academic preparation than students who persisted early, remediation could not be the cause of dropping out of college.
Lastly, the Center for Community College Student Engagement (2012) surveyed college students to find out how likely it would be that they would withdraw from college due to various constraints. Overwhelmingly, the top two responses were “lacking finances” (49%) and “working full-time” (38%). Again, “being academically unprepared” (19%) came in fourth and last among reasons cited for student withdrawal (p. 7).
Stopping out of college due to work is essentially the same root cause as lacking finances. This means money is by far the most commonly cited reason why students do not enroll in or finish college. The relative boredom or frustration experienced by students in remedial or developmental courses does not appear in the data as a main cause. Therefore, reforms that eliminate or severely restrict remediation or developmental education might be missing the mark. Perhaps reforms that address students’ lack of finances, work-related interference, and personal issues would be far more effective in student completion and retention. That way, students returning to college and requiring brush-ups on reading, writing, and mathematics would be able to access those courses and have the support of financial resources as well.
False Narrative: “Remediation Is a Barrier and Ineffective”
Related to the false narrative of boring and frustrating remediation and developmental education is the sentiment that students founder in these courses more than others, i.e., remedial coursework is a barrier. A consequence of this narrative is that many researchers and policymakers conclude remedial coursework is harmful and unnecessary. The barrier narrative has been repeated so frequently that it is now a commonly held belief even among practitioners across the nation.
The reason so many people in the field of higher education believe in this narrative is due to its sheer repetition. A large number of papers and news articles have proclaimed that remediation is ineffective or a barrier over the past decade (Bailey et al., 2009, 2010, 2015; Grubb, 2013; Edgecombe, 2011; Edgecombe et al., 2013; Field, 2019; Hanford, 2016, 2017; Hughes & Scott-Clayton, 2011; Jaggars & Stacey, 2014; Jenkins et al., 2010; Long, 2014; Marcus, 2012; “Remediation,” 2012; Scott-Clayton, 2018; Scott-Clayton et al., 2014; Scott-Clayton & Rodriguez, 2014), and there are many more.
Most of the original evidence used as support for this claim can be found in Bailey et al. (2009, 2010). The subsequent research that has formed the evidence base for this argument can be found in numerous regression discontinuity (RD) design studies, mostly from the same research organization and mostly showing null effects of remediation. Jaggars and Stacey (2014) have provided an overview of most of the RD studies researchers and policymakers cite as evidence of remediation’s inefficacy.
The fundamental flaw in all the RD research is the definition of success researchers use when interpreting the null result. When remedial and nonremedial students have the same subsequent outcomes statistically, researchers view this as a failure of remediation. The RD premise is that to show positive results, remedial students must perform better than nonremedial students after taking their coursework. However, practitioners have consistently argued that if remedial students were to attain similar outcomes as nonremedial students in subsequent metrics, that result should be viewed as a success (Goudas & Boylan, 2012; Boylan & Bonham, 2014). This misinterpretation of remediation’s goal has led to massive and widespread reforms that have changed the landscape of developmental education nationwide.
What Do the Data Say About College Remediation Being a Barrier and Ineffective?
More comprehensive research has been conducted recently that has demonstrated remediation is not a barrier. First and most important is a study by the USDOE’s National Center for Education Statistics (Chen, 2016). The author took a nationally representative sample of two-year public students from the USDOE’s 2003–2009 Beginning Postsecondary Students (BPS) longitudinal dataset. The sample was first broken into remedial and nonremedial students. Then, remedial students were categorized further into three categories, completers, partial completers, and noncompleters, which refer to how students who placed into remedial sequences progressed through them.
Remarkably, students who completed their entire course sequences comprised almost half of all remedial students: “At public 2-year institutions, just about half of remedial coursetakers (49 percent) completed all the remedial courses that they attempted (i.e., earned a passing grade or some credits); the remaining either completed some (35 percent) or none of these courses (16 percent)” (p. 22). Even more critically, this group graduated at a higher rate than nonremedial students after six years. Remedial completers attained degrees at either a two- or four-year degree at a rate of 43%. This was four percentage points higher than the 39% completion rate for nonremedial students, i.e., students who did not require remediation (p. 35).
Chen (2016) is an in-depth report, and the data were analyzed in numerous ways. However, to highlight one of the more nuanced findings, weakly prepared remedial students fared better than weakly prepared, statistically similar nonremedial students, and more well-prepared remedial students had similar outcomes compared to well-prepared but similar nonremedial students:
Weakly prepared students who successfully completed all remedial courses (English/reading or math) experienced better postsecondary outcomes than did their counterparts who were weakly prepared but did not enroll in remedial courses. Similar patterns, however, did not hold for remedial completers with moderate/strong preparation when compared with their counterparts (i.e., students who had similar demographic and enrollment characteristics and academic preparation) who did not enroll in remedial courses. In almost all comparisons, remedial completers with moderate/strong preparation did not demonstrate significantly better or worse outcomes than their nonremedial counterparts when academic preparation and background characteristics were taken into account. (p. x)
The most important findings from Chen (2016) were that remedial completers had higher graduation rates than nonremedial students; that weakly prepared remedial students performed better as a result of their remedial coursework; and that more well-prepared remedial students did not have reduced outcomes compared to nonremedial students. Therefore, it is very difficult to conclude remediation is a barrier using any interpretation of the data. Chen used a representative sample of students taken from the same time frame as the students in Bailey et al. (2009, 2010) data. Perhaps two reasons Bailey et al. found different results are that first, they only looked at ATD students, and second, they only tracked them for three years to form their conclusions.
Further demonstrating that remediation is not a barrier, Harvard researchers analyzed data from several massive reforms in Tennessee (Kane et al., 2020). The Board of Regents in the state decided to implement a version of remediation in high schools at the same time they eliminated prerequisite, stand-alone remedial courses in community colleges, and then policymakers replaced these courses with corequisites. They also replaced college algebra with statistics as a default mathematics program requirement (Kane et al., 2020; Ran & Lin, 2019). Kane et al. (2020) analyzed the results of all the reforms and determined that the stand-alone model of remediation was not holding back students more than researchers originally supposed:
Our findings also suggest that the role of remedial course requirements as a cause of low completion rates has been overstated. Prerequisite remediation is neither the major cause of low completion (as many of its critics have argued) nor a major solution for students with weak math skills. (para. 9)
Furthermore, Zeidenberg et al. (2012) showed that many general courses taken in the first semester or first year of college, besides remedial English and mathematics, are equally likely to be correlated with low pass rates and stopouts. Data from universities show similar findings (Yeado et al., 2014). All of this data point to the fact that remedial courses are no greater of a barrier than other college courses (Goudas, 2017).
Finally, research from the City University of New York’s (CUNY) Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) has demonstrated conclusively that remediation, as part of a holistic, thoughtful, and well-funded program, does not create a barrier to graduation or other commonly assessed metrics such as college credits or retention rates. ASAP originated in New York City and has been replicated successfully in Ohio (Miller et al., 2020). The design has proven that students can take stand-alone remedial courses within a holistic model, which is developmental education as it was originally envisioned and promoted (National Center for Developmental Education, n.d.), and still have double the graduation rates compared to a control group of similar students. Creators of the design understood the actual barriers of college completion—lack of finances, work, and family—because they counteracted them directly by offering free books, free tuition above Pell Grant monies, lower student-counselor ratios, and free transportation.
Why False Narratives May Be Harmful
If one were to follow the logic of these false narratives created and perpetuated by researchers and the media, then the natural conclusion would be to find reforms that replace or eliminate remediation or developmental education. In fact, the continued spread of false narratives based on flawed interpretations of data has been so effective that lawmakers and policymakers began eliminating stand-alone remedial courses in 2013 and are continuing to mandate their restriction or removal in many state systems (Scott-Clayton, 2018). The original goal of these reforms was to increase college completion (Bailey et al., 2015). However, the most commonly promoted and widely implemented reforms—corequisites, multiple measures for placement, and pathways—have yet to show any improvement in this key metric.
For instance, two important recent studies on corequisites have concluded that they leave much to be desired in terms of critical outcomes. First, Kane et al. (2020) found limited success for the corequisite model in Tennessee, yet their analysis was limited to the initial metric of passing college-level mathematics:
We find some evidence that co-requisite remediation has been somewhat more effective in helping students to pass their college-math requirements than high-school remediation, implying that there may be some benefit to reducing the time lag between remediation and college course work. (para. 28)
This finding is similar to results reported in prior literature on ALP, which was the original corequisite model for English (Cho et al., 2012). In other words, when one compares a two-semester traditional remedial model to a one-semester corequisite model, more students pass the college-level course under the corequisite design than the traditional design. However, that initial bump in pass rates disappears after one or two more semesters. Also, if corequisites are implemented according to the research, it doubles the cost of remediation (Goudas, 2019; Jenkins et al., 2010). More importantly, Ran and Lin (2019) also found no evidence that corequisites helped students beyond the first year, especially in terms of completion metrics:
We found no significant impacts of placement into corequisite remediation on enrollment persistence, transfer to a four-year college, or degree completion. This suggests that corequisite reforms, though effective in helping students pass college-level math and English, are not sufficient to improve college completion rates overall. (abstract)
Perhaps most importantly, in a comprehensive chapter on developmental education, Jaggars & Bickerstaff (2018) recognized that all of the most recent and popular reforms in the field have limited use in increasing postsecondary completion:
Research suggests that the most popular reform models (including multiple measures assessment and placement, math pathways, and the co-requisite approach) will indeed improve students’ rate of success in college-level math and English, but they are unlikely to substantially improve graduation rates. (p. 496)
No one, however, has looked at the negative effects of a widespread reduction of access for at-risk students when stand-alone traditional remedial courses are being removed completely or severely restricted. In the past decade of swift reforms, it is likely that researchers and policymakers have been addressing the wrong problem in higher education. Instead of focusing on the data that reveal how work and finances are the main issues to be addressed, policymakers have instead targeted reforms that excessively accelerate or simply eliminate remedial coursework. This singular focus may have simply increased the costs of higher education and reduced access for the most vulnerable students. However, any negative impact on underserved students will only be understood over the next decade after scholars choose to study recent longitudinal data. Students who formerly benefited from stand-alone remedial coursework may currently be at a distinct disadvantage.
What Should the Narratives Be?
One narrative that should be repeated throughout the field of higher education is that money, socioeconomic status and background, family responsibilities, and other related financial concerns are the most problematic issues for at-risk students, especially at community colleges. To some extent, it is already a prevalent and recurring topic in postsecondary circles. For some reason, however, when it comes to developmental education and remediation, the most critical factors of work, family, and finances that affect students are sidelined, and the barrier narrative prevails. Instead, policymakers and researchers should highlight the lack of financial resources as the primary driver behind two-year college stopouts as the number one issue to be addressed.
An additional narrative should be that comprehensive or holistic reform is the best method to address the numerous and varied manifestations of financial troubles students experience that prevent them from postsecondary attainment. As ASAP’s original and replicated randomized controlled studies have demonstrated, remedial coursework is a necessary part of a broad, thoughtful, and well-funded reform that, when implemented properly, can double graduation rates in three years for the most at-risk students for a modest investment of $1,840 per student per year (Azurdia & Galkin, 2020; Miller et al., 2020).
Removing or restricting necessary coursework as a response to false narratives, not based in data, is not only ineffective but is also most likely harming students’ ability to access and complete college. Practitioners and policymakers would do well to rethink the current movement of reducing options for students and realize that comprehensive reform, with remedial coursework included, is the most effective way to move the needle on higher education outcomes.
The Anna Karenina Principle in Higher Education
Tolstoy (1961), in his famous opening lines in Anna Karenina, stated, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” (p. 1). This idea was formed into a principle that describes a common phenomenon in complex undertakings: An unsuccessful enterprise may result from any one of innumerable potential problems, whereas successful enterprises are all comprised of similar components.
This can be applied to student success in college. Students who graduate tend to have similar characteristics: resources, life-long support, and some innate or learned beneficial personal qualities (Duckworth, 2015). Students who stop out do so for hundreds of different reasons, and each situation is somewhat unique to each individual. Therefore, any reform designed to help these students must necessarily be holistic, thoughtful, sustained, and well-supported in order to address the innumerable potential problems stemming from their complex and ever-changing lives.
The current narratives in college reform should change to reflect the complicated nature of stopout data, which is rooted in a lack of finances, work, and socioeconomic status, not boredom, frustration, or ineffective pedagogy or first-semester coursework. It is especially important to focus on holistic and well-funded reform for at-risk college students because the current trends of removing options and access and only slightly improving first-year pass rates are not effective.
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