Friday, April 12, 2013
As usual, I am posting my most recent doctoral paper. May help someone. Please cite my work, though.
Potential nontraditional-aged college students often come from underprepared academic backgrounds or have experienced learning attrition from their last formal education. National and state statistics on the numbers of remedial (developmental, learning support) students are large, but state governments often balk at paying for developmental education because of its expense and its alleged ineffectiveness and because developmental education is seen as “paying twice” for education that should have been accomplished in P-12. Georgia, with its traditional low high school graduation rates, has large numbers of developmental students, both recent graduates and adult learners. Recent policy changes were instituted to increase completion rates in the USG, but these have led to decreased access for learners needing developmental coursework. Suggestions for policy changes are made.
Key words: adult learner, higher education, developmental education, learning support, access, Georgia
The Nontraditional Higher Education Learner and Developmental Education Policy
Mary Smith is a twenty-nine-year-old mother of two. She dropped out of high school at 16 due to pregnancy. She is now married to a man with a well-paying job and her children are in school. In the last year she has earned her GED and is now looking at earning a college degree, since her academic sense of self has been bolstered by the GED success. When she tries to enroll at a local college, she finds out that her placement scores are too low and she will need to take three remedial subjects: reading, mathematics, and English. That will mean a semester or more before she can start to take “real” college courses.
There are many people like Mary in the U.S. and in Georgia: adults who want a second chance at formal, higher education. However, is there a breakdown between public policy and the best interests of adult learners? Is public education policy focused on the P-12 sector and the “winners” in post-secondary education to the exclusion of the underprepared? In this paper I will argue that national and specifically Georgia’s policies toward developmental and underprepared students is not in the best interests of the students or the society at large and that there are practical ways to meet the educational needs of underprepared adult learners who need and want a college education.
Are some people uneducable? Is there an inevitable group of people who will not achieve academic levels, no matter how many resources they are afforded? This question seems to be the “theory-in-use” of the educational system of the U.S. The earliest research on who benefits from adult education seems to mirror the groups that traditionally have benefited from higher education. Johnstone and Rivera’s (1965) often-quoted description:
“The participant [in adult education] is just as often a woman as a man, is typically under 40, has completed high school or better, enjoys an above-average income, works full time and in a white-collar occupation, is white, Protestant, married and has children, lives in an urbanized area and is found in all parts of the country. (cited in Ginsberg and Wlodkowski, 2010, p. 27).
has been verified in later research (Hudson et al, 2005) who found formal and nonformal education is largely limited to White or Asian Americans earning over $75,000 per year and in early middle age.
Findsen (2011) argues that this demographic bias in adult education is still the case, although he is dealing specifically with adult education for older (post-traditional-retirement) adults. He states,
Many of these Western style, supposedly innovative, agencies of older adult education illustrate that “active ageing” or “successful ageing” is fairly readily accomplished in part by joining these cultural enclaves of middle-class privilege. . . The field has been colonized by this acceptance of white middle class norms at the very time most societies are becoming increasingly diverse” (p. 210-211).
He goes on “Where within the USA do we see working-class older people, those from minorities in respective countries or any curriculum which challenges the status quo?” (p. 212).
In other words, just as “it takes money to make money,” it seems to take an educational background to further one’s education. Those whose first go at formal education was unsuccessful are likely to find the second go very difficult, paved with personal, financial, and procedural obstacles. Ginsberg and Wlodkowski (2010), citing Benseman (2005), say it succinctly: “The adults least likely to participate are those with least amount of formal education and lowest incomes” (p. 27). Especially when the adult education desired is a community or four-year college degree, those who have not attained traditional college readiness skills or who have lost those skills through attrition are at a disadvantage in adult learning situations.
Remedial Education in the U.S.
Although some reports differ in terms of exactly how many students need and take remedial courses as they begin their college careers, Russell (2008) states
A 2002 study by the Education Commission of the States (ECS) found that state-level remedial education rates at community colleges ranged from 10 percent to 72 percent. State-level remediation rates at public four-year colleges ranged from six percent to 50 percent. This should not be surprising, given that state policies vary widely, and there is no agreed-upon standard for college readiness. (p. 3).
The National Center for Education Statistics (2012) reports the following: “In 1990 82.9 percent of four-year colleges public offered remedial services for incoming students; in 2011, 75.7 percent did. However, the percentage of two-year public colleges offering these services increased to 99.5 in 2011.” Likewise, the same source reported in 2012 that 5,975,126 students in higher educational institutions were 25 and over, or 33.1%. The Complete College Georgia Report (2012) states, “Furthermore, the 'traditional’ college student who enters directly from high school on a full-time, residential basis makes up only 25 percent of the nation’s student body. Commuter, part-time, and adult learners constitute the majority” (p. 6).
Remedial education is normally termed “developmental” or in the state of Georgia, “learning support.” Hunter Boylan (1999), a national scholar in developmental education trends, published in 1999 a study analyzing what types of students need and take developmental courses. At the time, 40% were adult learners (25 or over), about 20% were married, and one third worked 35 hours or more per week. These are the most recent of these kinds of statistics, but Russell (2008) adds, “There will always be students who have delayed college entry—returning adult workers, immigrants, veterans, and others who are motivated to attain college degrees, but who are underprepared to begin the journey. These individuals deserve the same educational opportunities as everyone else” (p. 8). Unfortunately, Dirkx and Thang (2011), who did qualitative research with a cohort of displaced factory workers in a remedial education program, state,
But college student development theory, upon which many traditional DE programs are grounded, has little to say about development of a learner identity among production workers returning to school after 15 – 30 years of an economically stable career. Furthermore, few studies of developmental education examine outcomes such as students’ experiences of these programs or their influence on the students’ sense of self as a learner. (p. 108)
Despite the continued need for developmental education for returning learners, fewer four-year colleges are offering developmental education. First, it is seen as costly—$1.4 billion per year nationwide (Russell, 2008). However, she goes on to argue that “A 1998 study from the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) notes that remediation costs less than one percent of total higher education expenditures” (p.5) and costs can vary greatly among states. Second, and more importantly, there is a widespread belief that developmental education is inefficient and ineffective, with low completion rates.
Pretlow and Wathington (2011) argue that recent research indicates “that community college students who successfully complete their developmental sequence go on to graduate or transfer to a four-year institution at comparable rates to students who began at college-level” (p. 2) and the Gates Foundation and Achieving the Dream Gates Foundation and Achieving the Dream have specific goals of strengthening developmental education for minorities. However, “a recent analysis of developmental students in Achieving the Dreams Colleges found that less than 40% of students assigned to developmental coursework finish their developmental sequence” (Price and Roberts, 2008-2009, p. 1).
Primarily, those who make decisions about funding higher education believe that remediation for higher education is the job of the P-12 sector, but this policy ignores the fact that those students coming directly from high schools constitute a decreasing portion of the higher education population, and that “fixing” the current P-12 sector will not “fix” the needs of adult learners who fit into Soares (2013) category of “post-traditional learners,” who encompass many life stages and identities; they are single mothers, immigrants, veterans, and at-risk younger people looking for a second chance” (p. 11). Additionally, federal and state financial aid policy does not encourage adult learners, and employers do not provide incentives (Ginsberg & Wlodkowki, 2010).
On the other hand, the need for an educated workforce is increasing. According to the U.S. Department of Education (2010), “It is widely acknowledged that the fastest growing jobs in the 21st century will require some level of postsecondary education. Consequently, moving more people through postsecondary programs aligned with the economic needs of a community or region is vital to our nation's future competitiveness, security, and stability.” Gloom and doom statistics about the increasing likelihood that the United States will not have enough college graduates to meet demands for the labor force in the next ten years abound. A report in 2007 from the states that in 2025 the country will be 16 million postsecondary degrees short of meeting America’s workforce needs. Therefore, the country as a whole finds itself in a position where it must foster postsecondary education for a larger number of citizens but also supports educational policy that puts obstacles in the way of those citizens.
Remedial Education in Georgia
Georgia faces all the problems about developmental adult learners discussed to this point, only more so. Although the state has done an admirable job of increasing high school graduation rates since the early 1990s, from 51.3% to over 67.8% (United Health Foundation, 2012), there has historically been a high dropout rate and accompanying low educational attainment rate. According to 2012 Census Bureau data, 16% of the adult population of Georgia lacks a high school diploma or equivalent. That compares to national average of 14.6 percent. Other sources put that rate at 18% (Technical College System of Georgia, 2012). Such low educational attainment levels leads to much lower earning capability. According to the National Information Center for Higher Education Policymaking and Analysis statistics on Georgia high school graduation rates, in 2007 19% of 18- to 64- years-olds with a high school diploma or less were living in families below a living wage.
Additionally, the Complete College Georgia Plan explains that, “Both of the University System of Georgia’s two-year colleges provide remediation to 59 percent of entering students, and its 14 state colleges provide remediation to 48 percent of entering students” (p. 17). At some institutions, the percentage was much higher. To address what was seen as a too-high and ineffective developmental education policy, Fall 2012 saw the beginning of new admissions policy. The 16 open access colleges in the USG would no longer allow students with any level of COMPASS (the placement exam) scores to enroll; the required scores were increased significantly and the students needing developmental coursework in all three subjects (mathematics, reading, and English) would not be allowed to enroll (Virginia Michelich, August 15, 2010, personal communication). Additionally, HOPE scholarship rules were changed in 2011 to eliminate any funds for developmental courses; however, HOPE grants are still available or underprepared students, under certain conditions.
The proposed solution for those students who would not be allowed entrance but who desired postsecondary education was that they would enter the technical college system, either to earn a technical certificate (diploma) or to try to attain enough credits of general education subjects to transfer later. There are two lines of argument against that solution. First, the technical system was not designed as a transfer institution system. Its mission and the focus of classes and programs are different from that of the USG. Only 27 hours of general education can transfer, and almost all other classes that a student would take in a technical program do not transfer to USG institutions. The accreditation standards for Technical System colleges are different than for USG institutions because they are considered a different level of institution. Students are not benefited by spending time in the technical college system, nor is the technical college system benefited by having these transient students with little commitment to their technical programs. These institutions are held to completion rates that are negatively affected by students enrolling only to gain some credits but not finish a program of study.
However, the second line of argument has to do with the reality of statistics on this year’s enrollment. Learning support enrollment in the USG decreased by 7771 students from 2010 to 2012, and in the Technical System by 1160 students (USG, 2010, 2012; TCSG, 2011, 2012). In short, those rejected from USG enrollment did not rush to the Technical System. Additionally, there was no policy instituted for helping those who took the COMPASS test and earned too-low scores—that is, a way for them to remediate and try again. In the end, fewer students were able to pursue a postsecondary education, not a desirable option if the state and country need more educated citizens and workers.
In being nondiscriminatory in its setting of standards, the USG does not take into consideration the needs of older learners and indirectly discriminates against them. As Woo and Bailey (2007) argue,
Taking math as an example, some students may have had difficulty learning math in high school, some may have taken very little math, some older students may have done well in math but have forgotten much of what they learned, and others may have language problems and experience trouble understanding the placement tests. These different groups of students need different types of services, but the assessments do not differentiate among them.” (p. 47-48)
It is one issue, in my opinion, if a recent high school graduate is “penalized” for being unprepared for college by being denied access to college; it is another when a veteran, displaced worker, or otherwise nontraditional learner is denied access due to learning attrition in algebra over a period of years.
The institution of the Complete College Georgia program, a national initiative of President Obama adopted by Governor Deal, calls for higher completion rates. Developmental education presents a problem for Complete College Georgia. The plan states, “Students receiving remedial education at the University System of Georgia in bachelor’s degree programs have a completion rate of 24 percent within six years” while “students receiving remedial education entering associate’s degree programs at either the Technical College System or the University System, have a completion rate of 7 percent within three years” (p. 17). Consequently, there are calls for accelerated remediation and redesigned courses, a good step. However, the issue of access for underprepared adult learners is still not addressed through Complete College Georgia.
A Modest Proposal
In order for the University System to increase access and still reach completion goals, the following is proposed. First, change Georgia’s restrictive learning support policy to make exceptions for students 25 and over in at least the state and two-year colleges. Second, free up Hope Scholarship Funds for learning support students after one semester of good standing. Third, continue the Complete College Georgia initiatives of improving developmental education, such as accelerated remediation, but be sure to assess them carefully, especially for older learners. Fourth, there should be more transparent state funding policies so that real costs of developmental education can be assessed (Pretlow and Wathingon, 2011). Finally, do not change the mission of either the USG or the Technical College System, but increase collaboration and articulation where possible. Additionally, on a national basis, there should be a reconsideration of the financial aid incentives for adult learners.
Having taught, advised, and befriended adult learners in both the Technical College and the University System, I recognize their special needs, challenges, and gifts. The State of Georgia will, in the long run, benefit by making higher education more accessible for these learners.
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