Tuesday, April 30, 2013


A Counterfeit Cash Cow

“Colleges make money off remediation.  That’s why they do so much of it.”

Um, no.  I’ve heard that one off and on over the years, including three times in the last month.  I don’t know if that’s local coincidence or a sign of a trend, but either way, it grinds my gears.  

My guess is that the accusation about “cash cows” stems from the observation -- correct, as far as it goes -- that developmental classes are usually staffed disproportionately by adjuncts, who get paid far less per course than full-time faculty.  If the faculty are paid less, the assumption goes, then the courses must be profit centers.  

In fact, remedial courses are incredibly expensive.  That’s why proprietary colleges barely offer them.  When I moved from DeVry to my first community college, I was shocked at the prevalence of developmental courses at the community college.  At DeVry, very few students were placed into developmental courses, particularly in English.  (Admittedly, that made teaching Intro to Composition a real challenge.)  At the community college, the vast majority of students placed into developmental English, despite not being any weaker in any way that I could see.  Math was another matter, but even there, DeVry did what it could to avoid pushing students into courses that “didn’t count” towards graduation.  At the community college, not so much...

The courses are expensive for several reasons.  They run smaller, which negates much of the cost advantage per student from using adjuncts.  They tend to require far more outside-of-class support, such as tutoring, then do college-level courses.  Tutoring centers generate cost but don’t generate any direct revenue.  But most importantly and basically, developmental classes generate massive student attrition.  

As any business major can tell you, it’s much cheaper to retain an existing customer than to attract a new one.  Replace “customer” with “student” and you have a straightforward business case for doing as little remediation as possible.  A student who sticks around for four (or eight) semesters costs the same to recruit as a student who leaves after the first month.  When you can amortize the cost of recruitment over more semesters, your bottom line is better.  Therefore, if your goal is to maximize revenue, you want to maximize retention.  If maximizing retention means doing as little remediation as possible, then that’s what you do.

The reason that community colleges do so much remediation is not to make money.  It’s because they believed, rightly or wrongly, that it was the right thing to do.

Over the past few years, a consensus has developed in the research that says that remediation is often the wrong thing to do, especially if it takes a long time.  Long sequences discourage students, both by implicitly insulting them and by keeping them away from the courses they actually find appealing.  (In a particularly damning study by the Community College Research Center a few years ago, students who placed into developmental sequences, but skipped them, did just as well in college-level courses as the students who dutifully did what they were told.)  Student success isn’t merely a function of academic preparation; it’s also a function of interest.  Forcing students to eat their spinach doesn’t do much for their motivation.  And that’s assuming that the spinach is good for them in the first place.  

As colleges (and policymakers) are starting to see that the educational and economic imperatives are pointing in the same direction, the movement to compress or bypass developmental courses is gaining momentum.  I consider this an unalloyed good.  It’s one thing to spend resources on something effective.  But losing money -- both college money and student money -- on something that doesn’t work just doesn’t make sense.  For a long time, we didn’t know better.  Now, we’re figuring it out.  

Go ahead and criticize developmental classes if you want, but get it right.  They’re well-intended, but flawed, holdovers from an earlier time.  They’re not anti-student conspiracies, financial aid scams, or profit centers.  If they were, the for-profit colleges would have embraced them.  Instead, the for-profits ducked them, and community colleges are starting to figure out that the for-profits may have had a point, even if for different reasons.  Just because you don’t like something doesn’t mean that it’s nefarious.  It may just be mistaken.

Developmental classes add 2-3 semesters to a 2-year degree locally, are not smaller than regular classes, and tie the student to the college with credits that are useless. They seem to be automatically assigned by initial counselors, without regard to COMPASS scores, high school grades, or any other indicator of ability. It's hard to believe that they are anything but a way to get an additional year of tuition and fees -here-, however well intentioned they may be elsewhere.
Ditto Anon 7:50. The developmental classes run with 30 students, and run 3 semester on a good day.

High attrition rate due to a large percentage of slackers and a fair number of students whose reasoning skills are not sufficient for them to attend college.

The latter group stays very long, refusing to acknowledge their inadequacy and sometimes I think it borders on dishonesty to keep them on board.

I also think that tutoring centers are not beneficial in math. If you cannot reason, you cannot do math, you cannot learn reasoning by repletion. Repetition is only good till the next exam.

Some students take placement tests, other opt-out and are placed in a very long path.

I don't know about English ,but it ia impossible to teach college math to the functionally inumerate and functionally illiterate.

The dev classes generate the bulk of our tuition.
DD has touched on some big issues in higher ed over his last few posts, and this one is another one that really nails it.

A program offered by colleges are not necessarily cost-effective, and in fact can be quite expensive for colleges. These programs are also not usually popular with students, and possibly not even effective for helping students achieve success.

Only in higher ed institutions would an unpopular, expensive and ineffective concept be defended with such rigour. After all, why do schools still have remedial programs? Even if some remedial sequences benefit some students, they likely don't help other students at all.

I think this is a place where DD's question about how to "fail fast" can apply. How about removing expensive, dedicated remedial programs and placing students directly into intro sequences? If a student can't hack it, then perhaps it was not meant to be. This may be challenging, for students and for educators, but it may also bring some pluses. Treating all students like first-class students may help academics and local culture. There may also be significant cost savings, and freed resources that could go toward other projects.

And if such an experiment doesn't pan out remedial ed could be reintroduced. It wouldn't exactly be a foreign concept.
Cash cow ur doin it wrong. One of our remedial classes (algebra) meets in the same lecture hall that's used for gen-chem.
At the directional state U where I teach, the tuition and fees of two students pay the labor costs of the adjunct who teaches a section. Our developmental courses are capped at 25 or 35 students (depending on the course). These classes are always full and we offer a gazillion sections every semester.

The developmental English classes are taught by grad students who PAY THE SCHOOL TO LET THEM TEACH as part of their master's program. The dev math classes are mostly taught by retired or unemployed math teachers, who are a dime a dozen, and are among the worst-paid adjuncts on campus. The tutoring center is staffed by undergrads and grad students being paid minimum wage, and it is run by one adjunct.

Given all that, there is no way that these classes and services are not a profit generator. I have heard our English dept head state that the only reason she can afford to offer upper-division poetry seminars and the like is because the developmental English classes pay the way for the rest of her programs.

I do not believe that these classes began with that goal in mind, but it sure makes it hard to change the model.
Wait just because something takes your money and offers you no benefit doesn't mean it's nefarious? Well, only if you need "nefarious" to be "intentionally nefarious". Just because something is administered "for your own good" doesn't mean it's medicine, or that the person offering it is a doctor. Heck, as a bioscientist I sometimes wonder if some of the doctors have any evidence for what they suggest either.
Some of the students treat those classes as a cash cow, living off of the housing and book money.

My CC never places anyone below their test scores and we have a couple of programs (rather expensive as they use tt faculty and small classes) to shorten the time in the math chain.

Universities in my state, directional or otherwise, are not allowed to teach developmental classes. I think this reflects a history of not having any open admission universities once the CC system was created.

What is odd, and took some getting used to, is how institutionalized developmental classes have become at my CC as a result of a really weak K-12 system.

My understanding is that the onus was on the student or local schools to deal with poor preparation before 1940. (Is Sherman Dorn around with some ed history?) The influx of vets from WW II with the GI Bill required dealing with HS grads who had been fighting for 4 years, something we are seeing again. But these are a tiny fraction of our weakest students.

Rumor has it that students returning after 5 or 10 years in the real world thrive in our developmental classes. The ones who come straight out of HS are the ones in trouble.
"Rumor has it that students returning after 5 or 10 years in the real world thrive in our developmental classes. The ones who come straight out of HS are the ones in trouble."

Agreed, CC Physicist. Now that almost all HS seniors are pushed into college, the result is predictable. I truly think that these kids should receive different advising, advising that allows them to consider a certificate program first (without closing off the possibility of continuing for an AA). Especially when their HS grades and/or scores indicate that the remedial sequence would be long for them.

Many of our certificate (and all of our AS) programs require remediation to a college level so that is not a solution.

My gut instinct (mostly from talking to new students while advising at orientation) is that the core problem is what Dean Dad mentioned: let's call it "eat your spinach" syndrome. Those classes are just that, classes, and they are classes that feel like "school" rather than "college". I'm only a spectator, but there is a common factor of emphasizing "interest" among some of the solutions being tried or discussed.

What doesn't work (except for returning students) is an intense classroom reprise of middle school and HS math.
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