Is Remediation a Civil Rights Barrier or Does It Bolster Students of Color?

Is Remediation a Civil Rights Barrier or Does It Bolster Students of Color?

Alexandros M. Goudas    June 2020

The murders of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd by police and the subsequent worldwide protests have spurred individuals, businesses, and organizations to reexamine their practices to ensure they are not engaging in or perpetuating overt or subtle racism, particularly against Black people who have long suffered under various iterations of systemic racism. No person or organization has been exempt from scrutiny: comedians, food companies, sports industries, even entire states. Almost all publicly known people and businesses have come under increased pressure to apologize for past actions and correct current practices that reflect negative racial stereotypes and continue the systematic oppression of persons of color.

Colleges and universities have largely been spared negative press during this period. Nevertheless, they are still responsible for continued reassessments to safeguard against racism, and this is a particularly suitable time to rethink current practices if they contribute to harming students of color. Even before the protests over racial injustice, however, postsecondary education has had a continual problem with the low enrollment, retention, and completion rates of students of color, especially African Americans. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Education, in almost every postsecondary measure, Black students have performed lowest or second lowest out of all race categories (Hussar et al., 2020). With little success, institutions of higher education have been attempting to address these low numbers for years.

One area in higher education that scholars and practitioners have been making a concerted effort to improve for over a decade, especially because it involves a disproportionately high number of students of color (Chen, 2016), is remediation and developmental education.[1] Most remedial coursework takes place at two-year public colleges (Ganga et al., 2018; Jaggars & Stacey, 2014; Jones & Assalone, 2016). Since remedial pass rates, retention, and completion have been lower than expected, particularly for students of color, proponents of reform have labeled the field ineffective and have recommended numerous means by which to improve it (Bailey et al., 2015).

A few scholars have extended this critique of remediation and have labeled its coursework a civil rights issue (Edley, 2017; Jones & Assalone, 2016). They have argued that stand-alone remediation is a barrier that should be removed or accelerated to allow students of color to attain more equitable outcomes. However, research has shown that stand-alone remediation does not harm students of color more than White students of the same preparedness levels (Chen, 2016). Furthermore, other models that accelerate or eliminate remediation have not yet demonstrated any significant improvement on completion goals (Jaggars & Bickerstaff, 2018; Pain, 2016). Other researchers are instead simply celebrating the removal of remediation (Scott-Clayton, 2018), which is likely the result of years of labeling remediation as ineffective. The net outcome of this label may have inadvertently led some states and institutions to remove or restrict remedial coursework irresponsibly (Bailey et al., 2012; Goudas, 2018).

Substantial contextual and longitudinal research has demonstrated that student background, not any particular college coursework, is the most important factor affecting underpreparedness levels and low completion outcomes (Jaggars & Bickerstaff, 2018; Zeidenberg et al., 2012). In other words, evidence has shown that the low outcomes students of color are experiencing in college are not due to certain course sequences in college but are instead the result of background and SES.

Moreover, critics of hasty reform efforts have argued that restricting or removing access to needed remedial coursework has lowered outcomes or is harmful for students of color in college (Mangan, 2019; Moltz, 2009; Pain, 2016). For example, Moltz (2009) discussed how four-year academics, responding to the increased elimination of remediation at universities, argued that “on-campus preparatory courses help boost the academic success of black male students, an often hard-to-reach population” (para. 1). To describe the negative effect of restricting remediation on African American males, Moltz quoted a researcher who studied Black men who took remedial courses at historically black colleges and universities: “‘While the number of African American male students enrolling in college is considerably lower than their counterparts, the continued elimination of developmental education would only exacerbate this trend'” (para. 17).

This sets up an ethical dilemma: Some scholars have argued that the removal or acceleration of remedial mathematics and English coursework is a civil rights issue, i.e., an unnecessary barrier for students of color. Yet scholars and practitioners taking the opposite view have argued it is not a barrier, but it instead serves to bolster at-risk students, particularly students of color, by preparing them for college-level work (Flannery, 2014; Mangan, 2019; Moltz, 2009; Pain, 2016). These scholars have demonstrated that a lack of access to remediation causes students of color to perform worse overall (Pain, 2016). After participating in remediation, however, students performed no differently compared to White students when controlling for academic preparedness (Chen, 2016; Jaggars & Stacey, 2014).

In this paper, I will describe the arguments on both sides of this dilemma, explain the related research, and attempt to reconcile the dispute by proposing a design that has been proven to improve completion outcomes for students of color, a program which also accelerates completion and includes remediation without eliminating it or fast-tracking it irresponsibly.

Remediation as a Civil Rights Barrier

The Case Against Stand-Alone Remediation

Though the argument has not been made extensively, a body of scholarship has contended that remedial coursework is an unnecessary barrier that disproportionately holds back students of color from attaining college credits and degrees. In an opinion piece, Edley (2017) claimed that intermediate algebra as a requirement in the California Community Colleges system is a civil rights barrier. He cited some comparison data from the system to support his assertion: “About 80 percent of African Americans required to take more than one remedial class in math do not complete their math requirements within six years, compared to 67 percent of Hispanics and 61 percent of whites” (para. 5). Edley’s argument rests on the belief that algebra of this type is not required to perform well in subsequent courses or fields of work after graduation. Others involved in mathematics reform have made similar arguments (Rutschow et al., 2019).

Jones and Assalone (2016), from the Southern Education Foundation (SEF), an organization dedicated to supporting students of color at minority serving institutions, argued more forcefully that models of acceleration, particularly ones that eliminate stand-alone remediation, are the most important tool in fighting postsecondary inequality. They stated that the current college reform movement of acceleration designed “to make college level, credit-bearing courses more accessible to all students, but especially students of color and low-income college students, is the single most significant action being taken to dismantle structural inequality in higher education” (p. 7). This is a powerful argument, one on which many agree. The problem, however, is how exactly to implement this necessary change.

The Civil Rights Barrier Argument as an Ethical Stance

Both Edley (2017) and the SEF paper (Jones & Assalone, 2016) used correlational data or research with limitations to make a civil rights barrier argument. That is, they made an ethical argument rather than a data-based proposition. Higher education is replete with data showing that students of color and of low SES perform worse than White students and students of high SES. However, there is no evidence that specific coursework itself is the barrier, especially remedial English and mathematics. Instead, research has demonstrated that other first-year college courses pose similar obstacles (Zeidenberg et al., 2012), suggesting that college itself is the barrier, not specific college courses. Also, according to 79 separate regression discontinuity studies, stand-alone remedial courses were not associated with lower outcomes (Jaggars & Stacey, 2014); in fact, remedial students performed similarly to nonremedial students in most subsequent metrics. Nonetheless, Black college students have repeatedly performed lower disproportionately, and one effective way scholars can address this is by highlighting it as a civil rights ethical issue.

Remediation as a Civil Rights Boost

The Case For Stand-Alone Remediation

Perhaps the clearest data showing the benefits of stand-alone remediation has come from a USDOE National Center for Education Statistics report (Chen, 2016), which has an innovative research design that separated remedial students into three groups: completers, partial completers, and noncompleters. Remarkably, nearly 50% of students completed their remedial sequences (p. v), and these students went on to graduate college at higher rates than nonremedial students overall (p. 35). For students of color, this study found that Black students in the sample graduated with certificates and two- or four-year degrees at rates indistinguishable from their White counterparts (p. C-18). Thus, this study showed that stand-alone remedial courses are not the barrier that researchers and interest groups have labeled them as (“Remediation,” 2012).

The Boost is Not Enough

Regardless of the moderately improved graduation rates of the half of remedial students who completed their sequences, the other half of remedial students had much lower outcomes in college after six years (Chen, 2016). This reflects large numbers of students of color who, for myriad and complex social reasons, are not able enroll in and complete college in comparable proportions. It is an endemic and intractable problem that scholars rightly highlight in various ways, including the labeling of remediation as a civil rights issue.

A Two-Year College Remedial Design That Resolves the Ethical Debate

Proponents of recent reforms have demonstrated that acceleration has benefitted many students (Bailey et al., 2015). Critics of reform have argued that the removal of remediation has caused students of color to perform worse (Flannery, 2014; Moltz, 2009; Pain, 2016). Clearly, stand-alone remedial coursework has been favorable for half of students (Chen, 2016), yet institutions can still make improvements because completion rates for students of color and of low SES are still too low (Bailey et al., 2015). Unfortunately, there has been a well-funded and lengthy effort to remove or severely restrict remediation (“Remediation,” 2012; Scott-Clayton, 2018), a movement that has resulted in less access to beneficial remedial coursework for at-risk students (Goudas, 2018).

Fortunately, there is a model in higher education that obviates the either-or stances on remediation. That model is called the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP), and it hails from the City University of New York (CUNY). It was originally implemented as a randomized controlled trial in New York City, and it has now been successfully replicated in Ohio (Miller et al., 2020). Instead of eliminating beneficial remedial coursework, the program embeds it into a framework of support that allows at-risk students, many of whom are students of color, to flourish and graduate at double the rates of the control groups.

Instead of labeling remediation a civil rights issue and barrier, and rather than maintaining its status quo, ASAP utilizes crucial remedial coursework and improves its delivery with a system of support that proponents of developmental education would argue embodies the term’s original intent (Boylan & Bonham, 2014). The model’s proper implementation resolves the ethical conflict created by civil rights proponents and remedial reform critics.

In a comprehensive discussion on remedial reform and its recent effects on students overall, Mangan (2019) summarized how ASAP reconciles both ethical arguments:

While stand-alone remedial courses get a bad rap these days, one of the nation’s most   successful models of remedial reform—City University of New York’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs, or ASAP—allows students who need them to start there. The program, which has been replicated nationally, bolsters remedial and college-level courses with extensive financial, academic, and personal supports. A study by the nonprofit research group MDRC found that it nearly doubled three-year graduation rates. (para. 58)

If two-year public colleges are going to address the entrenched racial gaps in higher education, more thoughtful, well-funded, and holistic reform efforts will need to take place. Equitable reform must be comprehensive to address the complex and varied nature of the problems of poverty, race, and inequality. It should not simply restrict, accelerate, or eliminate beneficial coursework. Holistic problems require holistic solutions.



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[1] Even though many scholars use the terms remediation and developmental education interchangeably, they have distinctly different meanings: Remediation is typically stand-alone English and mathematics courses; developmental education is a system of support surrounding underprepared students that includes stand-alone courses but also involves counseling, tutoring, etc. (Boylan & Bonham, 2014).