Reengineering Developmental Math

Accelerating Student Success Through High-Return Personalized Pathways

Topics: Community College, Academic Affairs, Academic Planning, Curriculum Development, Program Approval, Program Prioritization, Student Retention and Success, Developmental and Remedial Education

A Matter of Philosophy, Not Just Economics

Op-Ed on High-Cost of Algebra Sparks Debate on Math Rigor and Relevance

The role of algebra in higher education in tangled in philosophy, not just economics. In June 2012, an op-ed printed in the New York Times argued that the American economy is unnecessarily deprived of college graduates because algebra serves as a barrier to degree attainment for millions of students. More than just challenging, algebra was branded a curriculum with limited application outside the classroom. The controversial op-ed sparked a national debate on the role and relevance of algebra in education, with hundreds of commenters rushing to defend the merit of teaching algebra in college.

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But Algebra Skills Too High-Cost

Research Makes Compelling Case for Reduction of Lofty Math Requirement

Many faculty, students, and staff are adamant that universal algebra requirements do more to hurt students than help. Our interviews yielded many stories of students whose career aspirations were derailed by failing algebra-based developmental math courses. These are students with no intention of pursuing careers in math, science, or technology, whose goals were shattered by career-irrelevant algebra requirements.

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Students with Greatest Need Suffer Most from Lofty Algebra Bar

National data from Achieving the Dream reveals that students who test into the lowest level of developmental math have only a one in ten odds of attainment. Further, a disproportionate number of these developmental students are from underrepresented student groups such as first-generation college-goers, minority students, and Pell Grant recipients—students at the core of the community college open access mission.

Charged with a mission to provide high-quality education to traditionally underrepresented groups, many community college leaders feel a responsibility to ensure that students with developmental needs can succeed at their institutions. Our research identified tailored math pathways as crucial to elevating degree attainment for developmental students of all levels, but particularly those with the greatest developmental needs.

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Balancing Cost and Customization

Tailoring Most Critical for High-Need Students

Some college administrators resist matching students’ curriculum to individual career goals because of the potentially high cost of customization. To combat this obstacle, we recommend varying levels of curriculum customization according to students’ developmental needs, focusing the most extensive tailoring on students with the greatest math needs and the lowest odds of traditional completion.

There are several low-cost ways to match curriculum to career goals. This section begins with an exploration of strategies best-suited for non-STEM students, such as major module matching and statistics and quantitative literacy pathways. Our research found that for students with the greatest developmental needs, greater contextualization is the key to boosting completion rates. The increasingly popular I-BEST model is a high-return strategy for supporting students with significant developmental need that integrates developmental support with for-credit vocational training.

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Create Self-Sustaining Faculty Buy-In

Build Non-STEM Developmental Pathways