Bruce Vandal: WV leads nation in college completion strategies

Published in the Charleston Gazette-Mail, Gazette editorial page

Last week, faculty and staff from West Virginia’s public colleges and universities set forth on a bold path to dramatically improve college completion rates in the state. The work occurred as part of the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission’s Corequisite Academy, a two-day conference held in partnership with Complete College America to help campuses implement a new model for college students deemed to be “underprepared.”

Developmental, or remedial, education has long been recognized as a major barrier to student success. For too many students, placement in these classes represents a dead end in their educational journey.

Students are placed in developmental classes due to low scores on college entrance exams or low high school grade point averages (GPAs). The traditional theory assumes that these students are not yet ready to complete college-level coursework, so they are placed in courses that are intended to help them catch up — but do not count toward college credit.

Over the years, we have learned that there are serious flaws in this approach. For starters, measures used to place students in developmental education courses are far from perfect. Research from Complete College America and other leading college completion experts indicates that many students who are placed in developmental classes could have succeeded in regular, credit-bearing courses. And although exams and GPAs serve as valuable warning systems indicating a gap in students’ knowledge, they do little to pinpoint the specific area in which a student may need improvement.

As a result, students spend a great deal of time and money learning content they have already mastered. This is frustrating and demoralizing for students. And, even worse, it greatly reduces their chances of ultimately completing their degree programs. Studies have shown that time is the enemy of degree completion. The longer students take to complete their degrees, the more costs they incur and the more likely that life events will derail their studies. At community colleges across the country, just one in 10 remedial students earns his or her degree within three years. At four-year colleges, a little over a third of remedial students earn their degree within six years.

But there is a better way. The corequisite developmental education model provides students with the support they need to overcome any deficiencies in their knowledge and skills while simultaneously allowing them to complete college-level coursework that counts toward their degrees.

It’s important to note that placing “underprepared” students directly into college-level courses is not a “dumbing down” of higher education. Students still tackle the same, rigorous coursework they were always expected to complete. They are earning college credit, receiving the support they need, and doing so at a considerably lower cost than under the old model.

Instead of holding students back to “relearn” an entire semester of content and skills, students move forward through their college program and are provided extra support as it is needed.

This method not only spares the student time and frustration, but also saves the institutions staff time and money — two important factors in keeping the cost of higher education low.

The West Virginia Community and Technical College System was among the first organizations in the country to implement the corequisite model at a system-wide scale. In 2014, all of West Virginia’s public two-year colleges committed to using the corequisite system for those students requiring developmental education.

As a result, student success rates skyrocketed. Under the previous, traditional model, just 37 percent of developmental education students were completing college-level English within two years of entering a community and technical college. After the corequisite model was introduced, that number jumped to 74 percent after just one semester. The results were even more astonishing in math. Under the traditional model, only 14 percent of students completed college-level math within two years. But after one semester using the corequisite approach, 63 percent completed the course!

Since then, colleges and universities across the nation — including many four-year colleges here in the Mountain State — have tested the corequisite method with similar results.

That is why I am tremendously excited that West Virginia’s public two-year and four-year colleges have committed to transitioning 80 percent of all developmental education students into corequisite courses by 2018.

The commission and the Community and Technical College System should be commended for offering statewide and national leadership in addressing developmental education. They identified a problem. They found a solution. And now they are using their unique positions as state higher education coordinating agencies to expand this innovative strategy to make real, positive changes for students across West Virginia.


Bruce Vandal is the senior vice president for results at Complete College America, a national nonprofit working Fto increase the number of Americans with quality career certificates or college degrees and to close achievement gaps.