Developmental Education Initiative


Unprecedented national attention is now focusing on the community college as a critical institution for helping American workers secure economic well-being and for helping the nation as a whole to retain a competitive edge in the world economy. President Obama announced his intention to invest billions of federal dollars to strengthen these schools, with the goal of producing five million more community college graduates by 2020 — which would mean nearly doubling present-day graduation rates at most community colleges.

A major obstacle to realizing these objectives is the fact that many students arrive at community college unprepared to do college-level work and are required to take developmental (remedial) courses — which do not confer credits but for which students must pay tuition — to bring their reading, writing, and mathematics skills up to college-level standards. An analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Educational Longitudinal study shows that only 28 percent of remedial students in two-year colleges attain a degree or certificate within eight and one-half years of entry, compared with 43 percent of nonremedial students. Many students, discouraged by their inability to make adequate progress in their developmental classes, grow discouraged and drop out altogether.

The Developmental Education Initiative (DEI), funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and by Lumina Foundation for Education, sought to address these problems by supporting community colleges’ efforts to reform developmental education. The express aim, in the language of the Gates Foundation, was to transform the postsecondary system in ways that moved students “further, faster — and at far less cost in terms of time and money.” MDC, Inc., in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, managed the DEI and provided technical support to participating colleges; MDRC conducted an evaluation of the initiative.

Agenda, Scope, and Goals

The DEI built on Lumina Foundation’s multiyear national initiative called Achieving the Dream: Community Colleges Count, whose aim is to help students who have faced the greatest barriers to academic success to stay in and complete school. (MDRC is the lead evaluator for Achieving the Dream.) Many of the Achieving the Dream colleges piloted various developmental education reforms on a small scale with promising results. The DEI, which was mounted in 15 Achieving the Dream colleges that were selected through a competitive process, represented an expansion of these efforts.

The participating colleges proposed to implement, over a three-year period, developmental education strategies in four areas:

  • Modifications to institutional policy and practices to support better outcomes for developmental education students;
  • Acceleration of students’ progress through, or avoidance of the need for, developmental education;
  • Improved academic and support services for developmental education students; and
  • Revised developmental education curricula and teaching methods.

Colleges were also expected to provide professional development for staff, faculty, and administrators in connection with the developmental education work. While the original intention was that the colleges scale up reforms that they had previously piloted, some colleges chose to adopt policies and practices that were new for them (but that generally had been tested at other institutions).

The evaluation, which was funded by Lumina Foundation, centered on the implementation of the initiative (rather than its impacts). It addressed two main questions, one quantitative, the other qualitative:

  • To what extent did colleges put in place the strategies they proposed, and what changes in outcomes were evident?
  • What conditions facilitated and impeded the implementation and scaling up of these strategies?

Design, Sites, and Data Sources

The 15 colleges participating in the Developmental Education Initiative were:

  • Coastal Bend College in Beeville, Texas
  • Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, Ohio
  • Danville Community College in Danville, Virginia
  • Eastern Gateway (formerly Jefferson) Community College in Steubenville, Ohio
  • El Paso Community College in El Paso, Texas
  • Guilford Technical Community College in Jamestown, North Carolina
  • Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport, Connecticut
  • Houston Community College in Houston, Texas
  • North Central State College in Mansfield, Ohio
  • Norwalk Community College in Norwalk, Connecticut
  • Patrick Henry Community College in Martinsville, Virginia
  • Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio
  • South Texas College in McAllen, Texas
  • Valencia Community College in Orlando, Florida
  • Zane State College in Zanesville, Ohio

These colleges collected data on the number of students engaged in the key developmental education reforms they had put in place and on the outcomes (for example, successful completion of developmental courses and credits earned in college-level courses) experienced by these students. The Community College Research Center at Columbia University, MDRC’s partner and subcontractor in the study, analyzed these quantitative data.

Over the course of two rounds of site visits to the participating colleges (and through telephone interviews during those semesters when site visits were not scheduled), MDRC researchers learned about what it takes to introduce reforms and to bring them to scale. During the first round of visits, researchers conducted interviews with the colleges’ presidents and other key administrators and met with faculty members and advisory staff carrying out the strategies. The second round of site visits entailed similar activities, along with classroom observations and student focus groups, in five case study colleges that were expected to shed special light on the scaling-up process.