Phasing out remedial college education could help more Colorado students earn their degrees

A bachelor’s degree eluded Armando Manzanares for two decades because he couldn’t pass introductory college math. As he got older, his lack of a degree made it harder and harder to catch the attention of potential employers.

“I had all this experience, but I still didn’t have that damn degree,” Manzanares, an alumnus of Denver’s North High School, said. “It was really hard to find equitable employment.”

A bipartisan bill that passed the state House this week would take the approach that ultimately helped Manzanares get his bachelor’s degree and make it the standard across Colorado’s four-year institutions.

More than a third of students entering college in Colorado need some sort of remedial coursework, with the numbers much higher for students of color, those from low-income families, and those who are first-generation college students. For many of them, it ends up being a roadblock. Between 10 and 20 percent of students assigned to remedial, non-credit coursework never make it to a college-level math class.

“We thought we were helping academically needy students by easing them into college, but more often than not, we were easing them out of college,” said Joe Garcia, president of the Colorado Community College System, the main provider of remedial education. “We burned people out. They were spending money and time, and most of our students were short on both.”

House Bill 1206 requires that by 2022, public colleges and universities end the practice of placing students directly into basic skills classes that don’t provide college credit, with an exception for a small number of students who may still choose to take those classes.

Instead of paying for multiple semesters of basic math or English courses before they could even attempt college algebra or freshman composition, most students would be able to sign up for college-level courses that allow them to earn credit and then receive tutoring or additional class time to master the material. The bill allows four-year institutions to offer such instruction without getting prior approval. And it bans the practice of using a single placement test to put students in remedial education.

The approach, known as co-requisite education or supplemental academic instruction, has already shown promise in Colorado’s community colleges and at Metro State University. Supporters believe it will open up college to thousands of students who gave up when faced with the extra time and money of remedial coursework before they could begin earning credit.

Since the community college system rolled out supplemental academic instruction starting in 2013, the pass rates for English classes have increased from 36 percent to 74 percent and the pass rates for math classes have increased from 16 percent to 40 percent. Colleges have used a range of approaches, including offering tutoring, running support labs like the one that Manzanares attended, or using the first half of the semester to go over more basic material before transitioning to an accelerated college course in the second half, Garcia said. These results call into question traditional beliefs about students who test into remedial education, namely that they just are not prepared for college coursework. With the right help, many of them are doing well.

“What we’re seeing is increased success,” said Landon Pirius, vice chancellor for academic and student affairs for the community college system. “If a student can complete both gateway English and gateway math, which is algebra or stats, their likelihood of graduating or transferring, whatever their goal is, is substantially higher.”

Garcia said this transition to the new approach has been “challenging. It cost the system substantial revenue from remedial courses that are no longer offered. Instructors who didn’t have the credentials to teach college courses lost their jobs.

“We had to look at what is good for our students, rather than what is good for our institutions,” he said.

Some four-year institutions have also embraced this approach. Metro State University started offering supplemental academic instruction in 2013. But others did not. At that time, a top administrator for the University of Colorado system told The Denver Post, “We are a selective university, and I don’t anticipate us going in the direction of remedial instruction.”

Ken McConnellogue, vice president for communication for the University of Colorado, said the landscape has changed since then, but it’s too early to say how the university system will respond.

“The legislation is new,” he said in an email. “We are working to understand the intent and requirements of the bill and precisely which students it could affect.”

The bill would not require universities to offer supplemental academic instruction, but it makes it easier for them to do so. Currently, some university students get kicked back to the community college system, something the bill sponsors said can be discouraging and stigmatizing.

“Whether we like it or not, attaining a bachelor’s degree is a clear indicator of economic success, and we’re seeing a clear barrier that needs to be addressed,” said state Rep. Colin Larson, a Littleton Republican and co-sponsor of the bill. “This is disproportionately affecting those who are the first in their family to go to college, disproportionately affecting students of color, disproportionately affecting students of lower socioeconomic status who don’t necessarily have access to outside tutoring.”

Narrowing those gaps is a major reason the Colorado Department of Higher Education supports this legislation. While the initial results have been encouraging, progress has stalled.

The House bill is one of several pieces of legislation making their way through the Colorado legislature this session that aim to make college more affordable and more accessible.

“Anything that can be an impediment, we want to try to address that,” said state Rep. James Coleman, a Denver Democrat and co-sponsor of the bill on remedial education and another that aims to increase the number of high school students filling out federal financial aid forms.

House Bill 1187, which is waiting in the appropriations committee, would provide grants to high schools to increase outreach to families and better train high school counselors on working with students whose parents may not understand the financial aid process. Analysts estimate that prospective college students in Colorado leave tens of millions of dollars in grants and loans on the table just by not filing paperwork.

And Senate Bill 170, which was heard in the Senate Education Committee Thursday, would ban public universities from using criminal history or high school disciplinary records to turn down a student, unless an offense involves stalking, domestic violence, or sexual assault.

In addition, Colorado lawmakers say they are committed to keeping tuition flat at public college universities in the 2019-20 budget.

Manzanares, who now has a good job at Colorado School of Mines, said he used to think he just wasn’t cut out for math. The extra support he got to earn a B+ in statistics didn’t just allow him to check off his degree. It changed his sense of who he is. Now he’s taking college algebra “for fun.”

“It completely changed my whole trajectory,” Manzanares said of getting his degree. “I had chains on me my whole life. I had this sense of incompleteness. Now I have options again.”

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that no four-year institution would be required to offer co-requisite or supplemental academic instruction under the bill.