Rethinking remedial programs to promote college student success

Male student working at desk in front of a whiteboard in a classroom.
Editor's note:

This post was produced in collaboration with the academic journal Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis.

Many incoming college students are deemed underprepared for the rigor of college-level study, and they are referred to remedial courses (or developmental education). Up to 65% of community college students take at least one remedial course within six years of initial enrollment. Black students, Hispanic students, and students from low-income backgrounds are disproportionately placed into these courses. However, due to inaccurate placement and high attrition rates, the traditional approach of remediation—which typically consists of noncredit courses that must be passed prior to entering college-level courses—appears to have little benefit and sometimes detrimental effects. In response, many states and systems have sought different approaches to support students with remedial needs.

In contrast to the traditional prerequisite model described above, one popular strategy is “corequisite remediation,” where students deemed not college-ready are mainstreamed into college-level courses with concurrent learning support. As of 2021, 24 states or systems either allow or mandate the use of corequisite learning support for students deemed underprepared.

What are the potential benefits of corequisite remediation? As a structural reform, corequisite remediation allows all incoming students to enroll in college-level study immediately upon enrollment. This prevents a delay from the time students enroll until they accrue college-level credits that could be applied to a degree. In addition, corequisite remediation sometimes includes curriculum reform components. The traditional, prerequisite remediation approach is often criticized for poor content alignment with college-level coursework, which fails to prepare students for subsequent learning and creates barriers to progression. To address this, many states and systems have adopted curricular changes when implementing corequisite remediation. One prominent example is math pathways, which allows students to take math coursework that is relevant to their program of study.

In our recent study, published in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, we evaluated the effects of the first systemwide corequisite reform in Tennessee. We first used regression discontinuity designs to evaluate the effect of prerequisite and corequisite remediation on students’ outcomes. We then conducted difference-in-regression discontinuity analyses to compare the impacts of a corequisite approach to the impacts of the traditional prerequisite model.

Finding 1: Corequisite remediation produces better outcomes in gateway courses than the traditional prerequisite approach.

First, we focused on students on the margin of a college-readiness threshold that distinguished between whether they were placed into corequisite remediation or prerequisite remediation. Students narrowly placed into corequisite remediation were far more likely (up to 18 percentage points) to pass gateway courses by the end of year one, compared with otherwise similar peers that were placed into prerequisite remediation. The differences in outcomes for these groups were clear and significant, and our findings are largely consistent with experimental evidence from CUNY and Texas.

Together, the field is reaching a consensus that corequisite remediation is much more effective than the traditional prerequisite approach in helping students get through their first college-level English and math courses, especially for those who only missed the college-level cutoff by a few points.

Finding 2: Corequisite remediation and direct enrollment in college-level courses produce similar outcomes, with some exceptions.

We also examined the effects of corequisite remediation versus direct enrollment in college-level coursework without remediation. We did this by comparing the outcomes of students who scored just below the college’s cutoff (students required to take corequisite coursework) with students right above the cutoff (students exempt from any remedial coursework). We found that corequisite learning support did not provide much additional benefit—the two groups had very similar gateway-course completion rates, among many other outcomes that we examined. This suggests that students on the margin of college-level thresholds would have done just as well if placed directly into college-level study without remediation. If these students could dedicate the time and financial-aid resources for corequisite learning support to other college-level coursework, perhaps they would accumulate college credits even faster.

We should note one important exception. Corequisite students were more likely (up to 10 percentage points) to enroll in and pass subsequent math courses than peers directly placed into college-level math without remediation. This was largely driven by math pathway reforms that guided students into math courses aligned with their program study. The traditional practice for incoming community college students was to take college algebra. After the math pathway reform in Tennessee, students interested in pursuing social science and other non-STEM programs instead took math courses relevant for their majors, such as statistics or math for liberal arts. We found the most consistent positive effects on subsequent math course enrollment and performance for students in corequisite statistics. This suggests that the curriculum reform components are essential complements to remediation reforms, as they cover more relevant content in corequisite coursework and address students’ needs in their majors.

Finding 3: We see little evidence of long-term effects from corequisite remediation.

Despite these shorter-term effects, corequisite remediation did not appear to have any long-term benefits for enrollment persistence, transfer to four-year colleges, or degree completion, compared with either traditional prerequisite remediation or direct placement into college-level coursework without remediation. Among rigorous evaluations of corequisite reforms mentioned above, all but one failed to find any positive impacts on completion outcomes. This suggests that improvements in gateway course outcomes are important but insufficient for college success.

Community college students face multifaceted challenges related to basic needs insecurity, social and emotional learning, and balancing college study and employment, among others. The type of higher education interventions that have improved overall college completion on their own usually address multiple barriers to student success. Remediation alone is not enough.

In the past decade, state systems and colleges have invested in new strategies to improve college success for academically underprepared students. Corequisite remediation is one of the promising examples that may lead to better student outcomes by removing unnecessary barriers to success. With these encouraging results, state systems and colleges should continue to enhance their remedial programs to promote student success and equity in college outcomes.

You can read the full journal article in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis: “The Effects of Corequisite Remediation: Evidence From a Statewide Reform in Tennessee.