A Plan to Reduce the Number of Academically Unprepared College Students

by Elisabeth Barnett and Elizabeth Ganga

With the increasing focus on preparing students for college and career — not just getting them through high school with a diploma — many states have turned to transition courses to fill in the gaps in students’ high school education and get them ready for college.

The courses are designed to catch up high school seniors whose 11th grade test results indicate that they are unlikely to be up to college-level work.

If those students can avoid remedial classes in college, research shows they are much more likely to stay in school and earn a college degree.

In part, the Common Core State Standards and other similar standards are driving the change, with curriculum pointed toward college- and career-readiness by the end of 11th grade.
Though transition courses were offered in 29 states as of late 2012, early research on the effectiveness of the courses shows mixed results, and there is still a lot to learn about how to design the courses to maximize the success of students once they get to college.

To address the knowledge gap, the Community College Research Center (CCRC) is completing a multi-year study of transition courses and convened a group of researchers, practitioners, and policymakers from seven states to review what we know and what we need to know about transition courses given their widespread adoption as a solution to a lack of college readiness.

CCRC issued an overview outlining the state of knowledge about the courses based on the research and the meeting earlier this year. Along with that, a report discusses the implementation of transition courses in four states — California, Tennessee, New York, and West Virginia. Forthcoming papers will include findings on the impact of transition courses on student outcomes in New York City and West Virginia.

If students can avoid remedial classes in college, research shows they are much more likely to stay in school and earn a college degree.
If students can avoid remedial classes in college, research shows they are much more likely to stay in school and earn a college degree.

These publications highlight some key questions for researchers and educational leaders. Most fundamentally, what kind of college readiness are we talking about? Should the courses prepare students for placement tests or get them ready for the work loads and expectations of college classes? Or both? Should practical information about college be built in? The approaches to these sometimes competing priorities will affect the design of the courses and the ultimate outcomes for students.

Another question as yet unanswered by the research is which students should be targeted. Should enrollment be limited to students who are nearly college-ready or be open to all? Should the courses enroll students who don’t plan to go to college?

Though more needs to be learned, a few lessons are already clear. The publications highlight  design flaws in some existing programs, including no built-in way for students to place into college-level courses, via either an exit exam or agreement to allow automatic placement with a passing grade.

Without an agreement with the local college that the courses will satisfy remediation requirements, students may still have to take a placement test when they get to college. At the same time, a lack of feedback on how their students do in college leaves transition course instructors unsure of whether the courses are effective or need to change.

Collaboration between high schools and colleges, already strong in many states, can solve some of these problems, helping to ensure that the curriculum is up to college standards and that there is a clear mechanism for placing out of remedial classes.

Despite the challenges, some high school to college transition courses have been found to make a difference for students, allowing more of them to achieve proficiency in basic skills, place into college-level courses, or do better when they get there.

Tennessee, New York City, and California all saw positive results in local studies. But more research is needed in order to know whether transition courses will fulfill their promise in helping students.

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