The Future of Community Colleges: Reinvesting in Remedial Education Programs

Two-year community colleges have played an instrumental role in increasing our nation’s higher education attainment rates. As higher education becomes central to the socio-economic growth in American society, preparing additional students to enter and complete a bachelor’s degree has turned into a priority for local, state and national governments. Despite several strong initiatives like “Achieving the Dream” and “Complete College America” designed to improve college attendance and graduation rates among low-income and minority students in the United States, a vast number of high school graduates enter higher education unprepared for college level coursework at the time of enrollment.

Over the last three decades, white, middle class students have dominated the higher education demographic, but students of non-privileged backgrounds have more recently experienced greater access to post-secondary education through the “open doors” admissions policy (e.g., open enrollment). Though the open enrollment policy has widened access for all students to attend and pursue higher education, community colleges have also been under intense scrutiny for their failure to adapt to the diversity of their student population, often resulting in low transfer rates and high dropout rates.

According to the Remediation: Higher Education Bridge to Nowhere report by the Complete College America, less than one in 10 community-college students who enter remedial education programs complete an associate degree within three years. Remedial education, sometimes referred to as development education, immerses underprepared students with an inclusive and safe learning environment to learn from instructors who teach at a slower pace than traditional four-year universities. More specifically, remedial coursework provides minority students from disadvantaged backgrounds the opportunity to progress and complete early in college by working with adjunct faculty members who have more time and energy to supervise students both inside and outside the classroom environment. Despite the benefits of remediation programs in the United States, several educational researchers have criticized remedial education programs for producing negative outcomes in terms of credits earned, transfer credits, and completion of associate’s degrees.

Miami Dade College Homestead Campus, the largest community college in the US, which enrolls more than 180,000 students

Miami Dade College Homestead Campus, the largest community college in the US, which enrolls more than 180,000 students

The Community College Research Center (CCRC) has argued that men in remediation programs have experienced more negative learning outcomes than women, and that low-income and minority students are often placed into remedial courses that are on the basis of faulty tests and errors on incorrect placement examinations. In other words, a significant portion of minority students who enter community colleges encounter three major obstacles in the United States: 1. Staying enrolled beyond their first semester. 2. Transferring to a four-year institution. 3. Completing a four-year degree. Accordingly, new research methods and innovative practices that reduce the detrimental effects of remedial education programs on students’ academic achievement and performance are critically needed to ensure that underprepared minority students enter and complete an associate’s degree within a two-year period. For example, empirical research that collects quality data on graduation rates and job-placement rates, as well as how the data are utilized within the institution, is needed to determine whether or not students are on-track to complete remedial coursework prior to their start of a four-year institution.

As Christian citizens, it’s important that we work alongside higher education leaders and public officeholders to address the educational pipeline between K-12 and higher education institutions, and to help low-income minority students visualize themselves as college students prior to their enrollment in higher education. As higher education enrollments continue to increase, Christian educators must assist community college leaders in improving the impact of remediation policies and educational opportunities among low-income minority students in America. Institutional leaders and education policymakers should reinvest additional funding that improves the college-going attitudes and behaviors of disadvantaged youth and “at-risk” students in America. We need low-cost and scalable interventions that improve the quality of student support services for remedial students at two-year community colleges (i.e., financial aid, tutoring, child care, counseling, bus passes). In addition, student affairs professionals should reinvest time and resources to create intentional student life activities that foster student success on-campus, while at the same time, empower middle-income and low-income citizens for the transition into the world of higher education.

By expanding what’s working and failing within our two-year institutions, community college leaders and educational advocates can drastically shift their educational practice from enrollment-based funding to completion-based funding that further increases underrepresented minority students chance for college completion in the United States. The more we invest in education, the more we invest in God’s plan and purpose in closing the educational achievement gap across racial groups.

Roy Y. Chan is a Ph.D. candidate in the Higher Education Administration program at Boston College, Lynch School of Education in Chestnut Hill, MA. His research focuses on the economic and non-economic benefits of a bachelor’s degree, community college leadership, and the internationalization and globalization of higher education. Roy can be reached via e-mail for comments at