Texas college prep experiment shows modest promise for helping remedial students

Published: Monday, May 13 2013 6:03 a.m. MDT

Math teacher Thora Broyles, standing, helps students in a remedial math class Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2012, at Missouri State University-West Plains in West Plains, Mo. At the two-year school in south-central Missouri, fully 75 percent of first-year students take at least one remedial class, well above the national average of 50 percent at community colleges and 20 percent at four-year schools.

Jeff Roberson, Associated Press

The push is on to make college degrees a reality for more students, and the need for remedial courses on U.S. campuses has increased as a result. That makes college more expensive, and might not be helping.

About 40 percent of traditional-age college students and nearly 60 percent of those who attend community college must take at least one remedial course, according to a study funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Students with greater academic deficiencies are often referred to a sequence of three or more semester-length courses in a single subject area, significantly delaying entry into credit-bearing classes and possibly lessening chances of college completion. Research published in the Economics of Education Review shows that fewer than half of students in remedial classes complete their recommended sequence of courses.

To combat the problem, the state of Texas funded 22 colleges to establish summer bridge programs to help underprepared students get a good start at college. The summer bridge effort began in 2007, and a study to evaluate the program at eight of the schools followed in 2012.

The summer bridge programs at the eight schools shared common elements, according to the study by the National Center for Postsecondary Research. Those included accelerated instruction in math, reading and writing; tutoring; a "college knowledge" component meant to prepare students for all aspects of college life; and the opportunity to receive a $400 stipend. The state's total cost of the program averaged about $1,300 per student, though it varied widely.

The study showed that students were more likely to pass college-level courses in math and writing in the fall semester after their summer bridge program, and were more likely to attempt higher level reading, writing and math courses than students in a control group. Researchers expected to see an increase in college enrollment rates, but that did not occur. However, the results of the study were considered to be encouraging.

"Reducing the barriers to college-level coursework for underprepared students may increase the likelihood that these students will persist and earn a college credential," a study summary said. "Developmental summer bridge programs, then, may form an important part of a strategy to improve completion rates at colleges in Texas and elsewhere."

A review of the study by Columbia University's College Research Center noted that nationally, 6 out of 10 students entering community college need at least one remedial class, and only 28 percent of those students go on to earn a college credential.

As many as 13 percent of four-year colleges offer bridge programs, the review said. The Texas study showed that bridge programs do contribute to greater success early in students' careers — a time when they are most vulnerable to dropping out. However, there is no evidence to suggest that summer bridge programs are sufficient to improve long-term student outcomes, the Columbia review said. For that, colleges will need to layer other supports after students are on campus, it said.

EMAIL: cbaker@deseretnews.com

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