No pell for remediation?



A fellow at the Hoover Institute wrote in Bloomberg — I know, I know — a proposal to eliminate Pell grant aid for students who need remedial coursework. The idea is to “raise the academic tenor” of college, to send a signal to high school students that they’d better get it right the first time, to light a fire under high schools, and to direct the poor and the late blooming into trades.


Where to start?

Apropos of yesterday’s post, which generated a gratifyingly thoughtful discussion, it’s certainly true that developmental coursework is deeply flawed. The flaws stem from good intentions, rather than sinister conspiracies, but they’re real. Thoughtful people who want to see more students succeed are calling the wisdom of the current remediation regime into serious question. Innovations like acceleration, self-paced modularization, just-in-time delivery, and the Accelerated Learning Program (a.k.a. the Baltimore model, in which students are placed directly into college level courses and given extra help as needed) have emerged as ways to shorten pathways for students. (On the placement side, minicourses for “near miss” students, and multifactor placement instead of a single test, also show real promise.) The idea behind shortening pathways is to keep life from getting in the way, and to allow more students to make it through. I don’t think the innovations are done coming, either; I could envision a mixture of in-person tutoring with MOOC or Khan videos and interactive software, for example.

A close read of the paragraph above will show a couple of things. First, I’m way too fond of parentheticals. (Parentheticals and adverbs will be the death of me. Eventually.) Second, the common denominator to all of those reforms is an assumption that our students could do better.

Current research suggests that the assumption is largely valid. Students who flounder in a traditional semester format often do quite well in a more intense, short-term setting. (On my own campus, the course completion rate in January intersession is consistently over 90 percent. For a community college, that’s extraordinary.) Since the institutional forms we currently use are getting in the way of the mission, experimenting with new forms makes sense.

My issue with the Bloomberg piece isn’t based on a defense of developmental ed as it currently stands. It’s based on what the piece identifies as the source of the problem. As far as the piece is concerned, students are capable or they are not. We’re better off telling the incapable to take a hike and calling it a day. Let the cream rise to the top, and let the rest sink.

Um, no.

Community colleges are less than maximally efficient, by design. They’re built to serve several purposes, one of which is to provide second chances. I’d hate to think that the academic performance you show by age 17 is all you would ever be allowed to show. Anyone in the cc world has seen adult students whose teen years were spent in pursuit of the Keith Richards merit badge come back older, wiser, and on a mission. Those students complete degrees, get jobs, pay taxes, and bring a refreshing “cut the crap” attitude with them wherever they go. We see untold numbers of single Moms who had kids as teenagers come back and become nurses. Why that’s a bad thing, I’m at a loss to say.

At a basic level, what looks like an affinity between the Hoover position and mine — neither of us is happy with the current state of remedial ed — is based on entirely different critiques. The Hoover critique is that some people will just never have what it takes, and we can identify those people, reliably, by age 17. My critique is that we’re wasting too much talent in a system that frustrates people. If you believe that talent is scarce and discrete, take the Hoover position. If you believe that there’s more out there than we might guess from looking at a given group of high school seniors — not to mention adult students whose high school years are well behind them — then the point of changing remediation should be to offer more chances, not fewer.

Once you figure out which assumptions you hold, the arguments around financial aid follow.

By all means, go ahead and work with K-12 systems to help them better align their goals with college readiness. (Most states don’t even require four years of math in high school, amazingly enough.) But let’s not make the mistake of writing off everyone who wasn’t buffed to a high gloss by their senior prom. Some pretty amazing people weren’t.