Accelerate Recovery: Stop the College Readiness COVID Slide

Thursday, May 14, 2020
Ryan Reyna

The COVID-19 crisis continues to lay bare the reality that a postsecondary credential is the safest bet for an individual’s long-term economic stability. The most recent unemployment figures may be the harshest reminder yet that, in the aggregate, the answer is resoundingly “yes” to the age-old question, “is college worth it?” (see chart below).

Unfortunately, Blacks, Hispanics, and other individuals of color are disproportionately experiencing the worst effects of this crisis both from a health and unemployment perspective. At a time when economic mobility is largely defined by educational attainment, as a nation we must double down on supporting students—especially students of color and low-income students—access to and success in higher education.

Even before the pandemic, the number of students not placed in postsecondary credit-bearing coursework was staggering. More than half of incoming community college students, and approximately 30 percent of incoming students at four-year institutions, enroll in remedial courses, which significantly decrease a students’ chances of obtaining a degree. For instance, only about one in 10 students who enroll in remedial coursework in community college will attain a degree within three years. That’s particularly troubling given that community colleges and regional public universities are the points of entry for a large number of traditionally underrepresented students. The numbers in four-year institutions are not much better, as only 36 percent of remedial students at four-year colleges ever enroll in, let alone complete, their introductory gateway courses in mathematics and English. For low-income and first-generation students, these chances are even lower.

With significant academic disruption for graduating and rising high school seniors, the need for academic supports to succeed in credit-bearing college coursework is likely to grow dramatically. While focused on students in grades K-8, the projections for learning loss as a result of COVID-19 are significant—almost half a year in mathematics and a third of a year in English language arts. Regardless of the exact magnitude, it is safe to assume that students near or at the end of their high school journey will also experience learning loss that may hinder their ability to successfully transition to postsecondary education ready to engage in credit-bearing coursework.

Over the past few years, Education Strategy Group has worked to raise the profile of academic supports to “catch up” students while still in high school and support their implementation in a handful of states. It’s our belief that if remediation stands as one of the most significant barriers for closing postsecondary attainment gaps, we cannot wait until a student matriculates to address the issue. In addition to providing individual support to states like Indiana and Ohio to scale 12th grade transition courses, we are also collaborating with the Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin on the Launch Years initiative, which is working to expand high-quality mathematics options for high school students that set them up for postsecondary success.

High-quality approaches to academic catch up need to be a top priority in state efforts to respond to the COVID-19 crisis. Governors, chief state school officers, and state higher education executive officers should use their authority and even stimulus dollars to make sure significantly more students—especially students of color and low-income students—are on a seamless path to postsecondary credential attainment. Here are three ways that states can prioritize academic supports for students in the transition from high school to higher education:

Create an Academic Bridge During Summer for Graduating Seniors

Students that graduate high school this year will face unique challenges—fiscally and academically—as they seek to transition to higher education. In normal times, academic bridge programs have been found to increase postsecondary persistence and success. These efforts need to be dramatically expanded, and include a more significant academic focus than traditional programs. For instance, while not officially announced, one southern state is planning to use its CARES Act funding to pay for any student that has not yet demonstrated college readiness to participate in a virtual academic bridge program. The state is making an online curriculum available, similar to the transition courses mentioned above, for free and providing districts with grants to pay for instructors, as well as an advisor that can help students connect with higher education institutions. Students that complete the course will be guaranteed placement in credit-bearing courses at all two-year institutions statewide and will also have the opportunity to earn scholarships as an incentive for their participation.

The Northern Virginia Community College is using its federal stimulus dollars to create JumpStart, which will offer graduating high school seniors with tuition-free online college courses over the summer. This will help students gain postsecondary credit before they officially matriculate, giving them a head start on their degree and transfer pathways. NOVA specifically chose to offer courses that apply to a significant number of degrees and transfer pathways, as well as a Cloud Computing pathway that was developed through a partnership with Amazon Web Services.

Implement 12th Grade Transition Courses for Rising Seniors

Given the significant disruption for high school Juniors in the 2019-20 school year, and the importance of the last two years of high school for completing academic requirements and preparing for postsecondary education and training, it is imperative that states have a strategy for supporting Seniors in the 2020-21 school year. Every state should start work immediately to design and scale postsecondary “transition” courses that provide 12th graders who are at risk of being placed into remedial education an opportunity to demonstrate their postsecondary readiness while still in high school. In the best examples, the courses in mathematics or English language arts are co-developed by K-12 and higher education educators, thereby ensuring that they meet the level of rigor necessary for students to succeed in entry-level college courses.

Importantly, there need to be guarantees in place that successful course completion will represent preparation for credit-bearing coursework, thereby forgoing placement exam requirements for students. Washington’s Bridge to College, Tennessee’s Seamless Alignment and Integrated Learning Support (SAILS), and Texas’s Transition to College Mathematics are three great examples of courses that over the past few years have helped thousands of high school seniors transition into postsecondary education without the need for remediation. The Launch Years initiative recently released a free content framework for a high-quality 12th grade transition course in mathematics that any state could use to stand a course pilot up immediately.

There are certain considerations that states will need to account of if the courses must be delivered online in the fall, but that should not stop the movement toward offering students more options to catch up academically.

Start Entering College Students in Credit-Bearing Coursework

Even with summer bridge programs and 12th grade transition courses in place, there are still likely to be students that matriculate in higher education needing additional academic support to find success. In this time of academic disruption, postsecondary institutions may feel more pressure to use placement exams to understand students’ academic gaps and direct them to traditional remedial education courses. This may happen even despite significant recent research exposing the flaws in a singular reliance on placement exams. That is all the more reason for states and higher education systems to immediately make co-requisite supports the expectation, not the exception.

Co-requisite remediation, in which students enroll directly into credit-bearing, college-level courses and receive academic support alongside their regular courses, enables students to stay on course to earning their degree without being saddled by coursework that does not earn credit. A study from the Community College Research Center found that for students on the margin of college readiness, those placed into co-requisite remediation were 15 percentage points more likely to complete the gateway courses required for graduation. And states across the country—including Georgia, Indiana, and Tennessee—have doubled, or even tripled, their student success rate in gateway courses by implementing co-requisite remediation.

States can either simply mandate that any student requiring remediation do so in a co-requisite model, as Texas and California have effectively done, or they can begin to track and publicly report what percentage of students completed remedial coursework through the co-requisite model by institution. This should be accompanied by changes to rely on multiple measures—instead of exams—for placement. These are two major components of Education Commission of the States’ Strong Start to Finish initiative that is partnering with six higher education systems from across the country to bring about these significant remedial reforms. ESG will explore these ideas in more depth in a future blog in our #AccelerateRecovery series.

K-12 and higher education leaders must work together to ensure that the current crisis does not lead to a lost generation of students. As a country we have made dramatic gains over the past decade in increasing postsecondary access and success, including for students of color and low-income students. Without significant attention to the students’ preparation to enter higher education, we are in jeopardy of seeing that trend not only stagnate, but possibly reverse. This not just a matter of economic vitality for our country; it’s a matter of equitable opportunities for each and every student in the nation. Academic disruption will lead to disengagement and skill declines. Let’s not treat that as an unfortunate byproduct of this pandemic—let’s band together to eradicate this burden.