Building Momentum: Education Leaders Convene at the White House to Help Address the Developmental Education Challenge

Higher education leaders met at the White House to build on the momentum generated at January’s College Opportunity Summit and focus on addressing a key barrier to postsecondary completion.

Some students begin their college careers ill-prepared for college-level math or English. After the excitement of enrolling in college, these students are often surprised and disappointed to learn that their high school experience did not equip them with the skills necessary for success. That means they often must complete remedial or “developmental education” coursework in order to catch up to their peers, which can add time and expense to their pursuit of a degree. Unfortunately, many students do not finish this sequence of developmental courses, and only a small percentage end up graduating. It’s frustrating for the students and the college faculty who want to help them reach their goals.

Assisting these students and helping them graduate was the topic of a recent gathering at the White House.

On August 12, leaders from across the higher education, philanthropic and non-profit communities gathered to discuss the research, evidence, and challenges associated with reinventing developmental education. Secretary Duncan framed the developmental education challenge as both a completion and equity issue, saying, “As you know, we can no longer use the traditional approach to developmental education, which has been a long sequence of remedial classes that do not count toward a degree and few students are able to complete.”

He told the participants, “I want to congratulate you on the innovative work you are doing on your campuses to redesign and accelerate developmental education and reduce time to degree. Not only will this help more students graduate but it will also help close the persistent college completion gaps because we know that large numbers of minority students begin their college careers in developmental education courses.”

Throughout the day, participants engaged in insightful, real-world discussions on the obstacles and opportunities of implementing developmental education reform:

  • Carol Lincoln of Achieving the Dream noted the importance of scaling effective reforms
  • Gregory Peterson of Long Beach City College highlighted how data can influence the developmental education reform process
  • Mike Leach of the Arkansas Association of Two-Year Colleges explained how this particular state system was able to scale developmental education innovation statewide with a federal TAACCCT grant
  • Uri Treisman of the Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin discussed the importance of making developmental math relevant to a student’s career aspirations

The event was also an opportunity to introduce the new Center for the Analysis of Postsecondary Readiness, which is funded by a grant awarded by the Department of Education’s Institute for Educational Sciences. Thomas Bailey, the new center’s Principal Investigator, was on hand to engage the audience on the topic of research and how best to utilize the work of the center to address this challenge.

The participants also discussed the importance of faculty and staff engagement in strategic efforts to improve developmental education outcomes.

This Developmental Education meeting is part of the White House College Opportunity Initiative, a call to action by the President and First Lady to accelerate college completion through a set of targeted commitments by colleges and universities, non-profit groups, states and cities, philanthropy and other allies.

The participants in the August 12 event added new commitments to the list generated at January’s summit and will contribute significantly to the momentum building for the next White House Summit in December, 2014. Yet, even as the higher education community focuses on improving the delivery of developmental education and its outcomes for students, the ultimate goal is to ensure that every student in America receives a world-class education, graduates from high school truly prepared for college and career success, and arrives on campus with no need for remedial education.

Those are powerful reasons to build momentum — and strive for results.

Mark Mitsui is Deputy Assistant Secretary for Community Colleges in the Office of Career, Technical and Adult Education at the U.S. Department of Education.