New York City’s public community colleges, for the first time in decades, assigned no new students this year to “remedial” classes, marking a major milestone in how the system supports students with academic gaps.
For more than 50 years, the City University of New York’s community colleges would assess students’ math and English skills when they enrolled and assign those who didn’t meet CUNY’s cutoff to “remedial” courses. These courses didn’t confer credits, but served as prerequisites to regular college classes, and students had to pay for them before they could start working towards a degree.
The remedial courses became a critical first step — and often an insurmountable hurdle — for tens of thousands students seeking degrees each year.
As a growing body of research questioned the effectiveness of the traditional remedial education model, CUNY and other colleges across the country have looked for alternatives. Now, instead of non-credit-bearing prerequisite courses, CUNY’s community colleges are using a “corequisite” model, where students in need of academic support enroll directly in credit-bearing classes, getting extra help at the same time, either through extra repetition built into existing class time, or supplemental lessons outside class time.
“Replacing the outdated remedial approach with a more effective, equitable and evidence-based system is an important advance in our ongoing mission to provide all our students with educational opportunity and the support they need to succeed,” said Chancellor Félix Matos Rodríguez.
The city university system began phasing out remedial classes at its community colleges in 2016, nearly two decades after CUNY stopped offering remedial courses at its four-year colleges. That earlier transition, around 2000, coincided with the end of open admissions at the senior colleges guaranteeing seats for all high school graduates regardless of grades or test scores. The community colleges continue to have open admissions. They play a key role in CUNY’s mission to serve New York City, enrolling a higher proportion of Black, Hispanic, and working students, and more students who qualify for Pell grants than its four-year colleges.
Remedial courses attract intense debate
Remedial courses have for decades occupied a central, and controversial, place in the city’s public university system, which now serves roughly 243,000 students.
When CUNY moved towards an open admissions policy around 1970, remedial classes became an important tool to ensure students who entered college with academic gaps could handle the rigors of CUNY’s four-year colleges.
After the pendulum shifted again in the late 1990s, and those schools began imposing tighter admissions standards, they largely shed their remedial courses. But at CUNY’s community colleges, remedial courses remained widespread. As of 2016, 78% of students entering CUNY’s community colleges were assigned to at least one remedial course, with the largest number needing additional math support, university officials said.
“About half who started those classes did not pass them,” said Donna Linderman, CUNY’s Associate Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs. “They either withdrew or failed them on the first attempt. Very few passed or moved on.”
One internal CUNY review from 2016 found that students assigned to remedial math courses were only half as likely to earn an associate degree within three years as peers who didn’t take remedial courses.
University officials and researchers pointed to several potential problems with the traditional remedial structure. Some students, discouraged by having to spend money on courses without making progress towards a degree, dropped out. In certain cases, students had to take a sequence of remedial classes that spanned multiple semesters, increasing the likelihood they would drop out along the way, officials said.
“Students were losing motivation to continue studying because they were stuck on remedial,” said Liana Erstenyuk, a lecturer in math at Borough of Manhattan Community College. “They are studying and working, they have families, other responsibilities, but there is no motivation to earn the credits.”
On top of that, CUNY officials suspected they may have been overidentifying students for remedial classes, sometimes assigning them to courses they didn’t actually need.
Traditionally, CUNY used a combination of students’ scores on high school Regents exams, SAT results, and performance on CUNY placement exams to determine who needed remedial courses.
But in recent years, the university system began considering a wider range of factors including high school grades, giving students a chance to retake placement tests, and changing cutoff scores, officials said.
As a result, the percentage of new community college students assigned to remedial education was nearly cut in half since 2016 to around 40% this year, officials said.
A new model shows promising results
Perhaps the biggest shift in how CUNY approaches remedial education is the shift to a corequisite model, where students with academic gaps can immediately enroll in credit-bearing courses.
That approach has grown in popularity across the country in recent years and has shown some promising results.
CUNY officials point to multiple advantages to the corequisite model. Students can earn credits right away, decreasing the chance they’ll lose motivation and drop out. Colleges can also ensure that needed academic remediation directly relates to the classes students are taking, since it’s embedded in those courses.
For example, students in the Borough of Manhattan Community College’s nursing program can get math and arithmetic remediation by practicing calculations around medication dosages.
Mark Kroboth, a 59-year-old student studying nursing at BMCC, said he started his degree feeling rusty in math, but has appreciated the chance to practice directly in the context of his nursing studies.
“If it was just math, and it wasn’t applied to what my goal is, I might probably check out a little bit,” he said. “But this class really connects you to where you’re going to.”
As a late-life career changer, Kroboth said he’d feel discouraged if he had to take a remedial math course that didn’t earn him any credits.
“That would have just been ridiculous,” he said. “I couldn’t even imagine going back into that.”
The challenge of corequisite courses is finding ways to build in support while still getting through all the normal material. CUNY officials said that there are multiple ways to accomplish that, including extra sessions outside of class hours or devoting chunks of in-class time to practicing the fundamentals.
Erstenyuk, the BMCC math lecturer, said she often records video recaps of basic math concepts that she asks students to review before class, then checks at the beginning the period to ensure everyone understands.
CUNY officials say the shift to corequisite courses isn’t far along enough to be able to definitively measure its success, but point to some hopeful early signs. The percentage of associate degree students who earned math credits in their first year jumped from 36% in 2016 to 50% in 2020, CUNY officials said.
The shift in remedial courses comes as the university system faces a slew of other challenges, including a major pandemic enrollment drop at the community colleges. CUNY officials said they’re also aware they may be getting more incoming students with academic deficits because of high school learning loss and disruption during the pandemic.
But Linderman, the academic affairs vice chancellor, said that’s all the more reason to push ahead with revamping remedial education.
“An underlying principle of the corequisite model is making students know we think you’re capable,” she said. “We don’t want to entangle you in a course that might take multiple semesters. At its most philosophical level…it’s a huge motivator for students.”
Michael Elsen-Rooney is a reporter for Chalkbeat New York, covering NYC public schools. Contact Michael at firstname.lastname@example.org.