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The Water Wings of Higher Education

Posted on: May 1st, 2015 by learningws 1 Comment

“Keeping your head above water” is a frighteningly accurate image in higher education. Keeping up with coursework can feel like treading water, looking around and hoping for sight of shore. To try and lessen this feeling, legislation and educators created developmental education (or remedial education), supplemental courses to ready students for college-level courses. Lately there has been talk of removing developmental education, so the article, “Minnesota considers bill to scrap remedial college courses” by Maura Lerner, looks into the debate.

The article opens with Tiara Carr, one of the many students who thinks that remedial courses are bunk. She took her story, which is one among many, to legislature in order to hopefully remove them from college curriculum. The idea is growing, but those in higher education are going to take quite a bit more convincing.

Those that are in favor of removal are making some good points, mainly that the added courses put strain on the wallet and the workload. And I was among them. Like Carr, when I took the Accuplacer, I was placed in MATH 0080, a developmental math course here at the college. I had taken a college-level math course before I began at MCTC but had to take another because my credits didn’t transfer, so I looked at the added credits as throwing off the tightly-constructed, four-semester plan for my major, not to mention as setting me back a few hundred dollars. It was disheartening to find that I needed to take college courses before I could really begin taking college courses.

The biggest problem with these courses, as seen by those who oppose them, is that they seem to actually have a reverse effect. These “helpful” courses make “it less likely that [the students will] ever finish college” (Lerner). In the article,  Bruce Vandal, vice president of Complete College America, states that only about 10 percent of the students in developmental education end up graduating, which seems to confirm and strengthen the argument pretty well. But Vandal is not without a solution. He proposes a sort of helping hand for the students who would have had to take developmental classes: meeting with tutors and/or having extra class time to keep up. He goes on to tell us that five states have already implemented this structure with raving success. In just one semester, “the rate of students completing a college-level math class more than doubled, from 29 to 64 percent” (Lerner). What growth indeed!

All that said, those opposed—those that see developmental classes as a necessity—don’t think the numbers apply to all students. Sure, those at the tops of their developmental classes would have to struggle in a college-level course, but they’d survive. But those opposed ask, “What about the average or the below-average developmental student?” Some students I’ve worked with haven’t been to school in twenty years. And as we all know, math is one of those skills one loses quickly if he or she doesn’t use it often. How would those students be expected to keep their heads above water? Laurel Watt, a teacher of a developmental reading class at Inver Hills Community College, says, “They won’t!” To students like these, developmental classes are just that–developmental. They are stepping stones that allow a student to remember how to swim before they’re thrown into the lake again.

So, once again, we are asked the question of what to do when something helps some and hinders others? David Arendale, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota who studies remedial education, says there isn’t any “one-size-fits-all solution” (qtd. in Lerner). He agrees with Vandal in that there are some students who would do just fine if thrown into college-level courses, but goes on to add, “I’ve not seen research that says you can go to the middle and the bottom [tiers] and those students will do fine” (qtd. in Lerner). Lerner then finishes her article with a quote from Arendale, “Why don’t we do a small pilot at a couple of colleges before we propose doing this statewide?”

I’ve had the pleasure of working with my fair share of students in developmental courses, and I’d have to agree with Watt. To remove those courses entirely would be to punch holes in many students’ boats that are barely seaworthy as is. Tutors like me are here to help as much as possible, but it is always up to the student to struggle through it—and struggle we do. College can be terrifying—more so if you haven’t been here in a long time—but with developmental classes the lake seems a little smaller.

–Ezra, MCTC Writing Tutor


Works Cited
Lerner, Maura. “Minnesota Considers Bill to Scrap Remedial College Courses.” StarTribune. StarTribune, 29 Mar. 2015. Web. 01 May 2015.

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One Response

  1. learningws says:

    Great piece Ezra – You’ve really captured the conflicting points of developmental education. I really enjoy your development into the idea of a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution, and I think that its overly applied in the form of testing – especially here at MCTC. This is truly an issue that is troubled by its uniqueness; students are separated by such wide gaps in educational development, that we end up having a hard time prescribing a single fix to a wide scaling problem.


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