Michigan Is Reconnecting to the Promise of Community Colleges

The skills gap, that gap between the needs of the job market and the skills of the available workforce, is one of the most pressing threats to Michigan’s economy. But while the state is spending millions to close the gap by expanding access to college degrees and good jobs, without a crucial, under-the-radar reform effort — transforming the delivery of development education — those efforts will fall short.

What’s at stake?

Traditionally, the story goes like this: someone loses their job or otherwise finds themselves at a dead end in their career. You’ve heard that more education is the best way to get back on track – to earn a degree or gain job-related skills. And they pull it off.

But after showing up at one of Michigan’s community colleges, the returning student is given a high-stakes test in math and English to see if he’s “ready” for college-level work. For most working adults who haven’t attended school in five, 10, or 20 years, the test finds them unprepared, with a score not high enough to begin college courses.

The student is then placed into a series of courses designed to bring them up to speed. But the courses don’t typically count toward a degree or other useful credentials. And the student faces great odds of ever completing the series. These courses may be designed to help students. But in reality, they just set them back further.

Luckily in Michigan we’re making changes because the stakes for college students couldn’t be higher. Typically, fewer than 25 percent of students placed in remedial or developmental courses complete college-level math or English courses. Still, students invest their time and money in these courses while burning their financial support.

And the students most likely to take these courses are disproportionately low-income, colored students, and the first in their families to attend college. Too many of these students become discouraged and leave college with no credentials, no promotion, without achieving any of the goals that brought them to college in the first place. Then they struggle on the job market and cannot repay student loans.

The good news is that we know how to do better. An overwhelming body of research shows that far more students are capable of succeeding in college-level courses than are currently enrolling in them. Likewise, studies have shown the effectiveness of important reforms, such as B. Relying on high school grades instead of tests and placing students with development needs on college-level courses while offering them additional help.

And Michigan colleges have started making these changes. But until recently, progress has been uneven.

A much needed jolt

The Michigan Center for Student Success began surveying the state’s community colleges in 2016 to measure their progress in implementing reforms in developmental education, including compulsory benefit delivery models. We found interest and experimentation, but little movement on scale, particularly in mathematics. Change is difficult, and colleges have lacked incentive to transform structures that have typically been in place for 30 years or more.

To kickstart the process, the Michigan Legislature included development education reform in the Michigan Reconnect Grant Act of 2020. This scholarship guaranteed tuition-free community college for returning adult students. But to be eligible to accept these scholarships, the law required colleges to ensure that scholarship recipients could accelerate their progress in college-level math and English courses by adopting one of three developmental education delivery models.

The 2020 legislation also called for a group of stakeholders to be convened – from academia, state government, business and philanthropy – to recommend best practices for adopting new models for the delivery of development education and to determine who receives support. This working group, led by the Office of Sixty by 30 in Michigan, recommended that colleges generally adopt the competitor’s model. With this approach, students enroll in Gateway College-level math or English courses and receive additional tutoring and support either embedded in the course or offered as a separate course in the same semester.

To better align legal requirements with the recommendations of the Sixty by 30 Working Group, lawmakers passed a revised Reconnect Act in December 2022 that, among other changes, requires colleges to allow Reconnectors to enroll in Gateway collegiate-level courses in mathematics and English to register in the first semester, possibly with accompanying support.

While nudges from lawmakers aren’t exactly pleasant, similar approaches have worked in other states. And Michigan is the first state to tie eligibility for a promising free college program to development education reform. It was a sensible move. Guiding reconnectors into required remedial courses would present an unacceptable impediment to their success, particularly for the many students who have been absent from education for years.

The initial push by lawmakers and interest groups resulted in significant movements. In a Spring 2022 survey of developmental educational practices, the Michigan Center for Student Success found that a majority of colleges have transitioned to mandatory models for English language improvement and a critical mass has begun the transition in math. But there is still a lot of work to do.

In addition to accepting mandatory performance, the Sixty by 30 Working Group recommended that colleges refrain from high-stakes tests for placement into developmental courses, and as of spring 2022, only four out of 28 appeared to rely solely on placement tests for support needs to determine. Most colleges now use a variety of measures to assess student preparation, including high school GPA, SAT, or ACT test scores, leaving placement tests as a fallback measure.

However, the model recommended by the Sixty by 30 working group is guided self-assessment. In this scenario, counselors inform students about the academic expectations of college-level English and mathematics courses and the support available, allowing students to make their own decisions about whether or not to seek additional help.

What’s next?

This is a critical phase of the work to ensure Michiganders have access to college-level education. Reform efforts to date have led to some improvements. But we have yet to achieve the level of nationwide effort — and impact — that could transform thousands of lives.

Dismantling a decades-old educational institution is a daunting task. It requires fundamental changes in the way higher education institutions function, as well as:

  • Support for faculty members to lead this crucial work and teach successfully in a new model.
  • Better advice, tutoring and other support for students.
  • Redesigning entrenched college processes and curriculum.
  • Nationwide collection, monitoring and reporting of who completes undergraduate college-level math and English courses within a year of enrollment.

The Michigan Center for Student Success is helping to lead the charge by working with advisors and national organizations like Achieving the Dream to provide structured support to colleges as they transition to mandatory courses and guided self-assessment. As legislators and the business community explore ways to support continuous improvement, the focus should be on providing investment in the key areas identified above. This work will require funding, sustained effort and time.

Implementation of this reform will open up economic opportunities for Michiganians while building a modern workforce. When we tell someone to reconnect with a community to improve their career prospects — and improve their lives — we need to make sure our colleges are ready to deliver on that promise.

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