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The future of developmental education in North Carolina

This is part of a series on developmental education in North Carolina. Click here to read the rest of the series.


“Something out of the ordinary is needed to help these kids catch up.” 

That statement was made by Emma Dorn, author of a recent McKinsey report on the impact of COVID-19 on learning loss. The report estimates that students lost three months of learning in math and one-and-a-half months in reading after the pandemic forced schools to close in March — and that loss is likely greater for students of color. 

We won’t know the full impact of COVID-19 on learning for a long time. However, despite efforts to provide high quality learning environments this year, it’s safe to assume we will see learning loss, especially among our most vulnerable students. And these are the students that community colleges in North Carolina serve. 

Remedial or developmental education, which is meant to bolster students’ math and English skills so they can succeed in college classes, will play an increasingly important role in filling those gaps.

In the past decade, North Carolina’s community colleges have gone through two overhauls of developmental education after realizing it was often a barrier to students instead of a support. This series has taken a look at that process and the challenges and opportunities of the current model, RISE. 

Over the course of four months, we talked to community college leaders, administrators, faculty, and staff as well as national researchers and experts. We learned there’s no silver bullet for fixing developmental education, but each reform has made progress. 

This latest reform, RISE, has not been without challenges. But preliminary data show that RISE is getting more students to college-level courses and allowing them to pursue their goals — whether that is getting an associate degree, transferring to a four-year university, or getting a credential — quicker than before.

In this article, we look at what’s next for developmental education in North Carolina. To learn more about RISE, click here.

What’s next for RISE?

In October, the North Carolina Association of Community College Presidents (NCACCP) voted to delay full-scale implementation of RISE until spring 2022. Still, 55 of the 58 colleges have implemented some form of RISE, according to a recent North Carolina Community College System survey

Not all colleges are happy about RISE — hence the vote to pause the system-wide roll out. Isothermal Community College is one of the colleges that has not yet implemented RISE.

Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, president of Isothermal, said there were several reasons they haven’t made the switch, including the pandemic forcing colleges to go virtual, but chief among them was the fact that RISE was supposed to be evaluated before rolling it out systemwide.

“RISE was a pilot program so that we could review the data,” Dalton said. “After the pilot, it was supposed to come back to the Presidents’ Association for approval for the implementation. Whether it’s true or not, there is at least a perception that the system office kind of got in front of that and was pushing for full implementation when it hadn’t received the approval.” 

The system office disagrees. “The system office never pushed anything,” said Susan Barbitta, executive director of student success at the system office. “Colleges opted in when they decided the time was right for them. The fact that so many colleges are RISE colleges at this point is a testament to the fact that the old method of prerequisite remediation was not serving our students properly.”

Despite the pushback, none of the presidents or administrators we spoke to wanted to completely abandon RISE and return to the old way of doing things. Primarily, people said they wanted to see the data and make changes based on what’s working and what’s not.

“I would not want to go back,” said John Isenhour, an English faculty member at Fayetteville Technical Community College, “and I don’t think I could find you a single faculty member in my department that would say we wanted to go back.”

Mark Sorrells, senior vice president of academic and student services at Fayetteville Tech, agreed. “I think we’ve got to stick with it a little bit longer and create some flexible boundaries for folks to make some adjustments in how the system gets used and have a horizon that’s a little bit further out so we can learn from the implementation and make some modifications,” he said. 

“I think the lesson for all of this is you can’t depend on anecdotes in any of this,” said Scott Ralls, president of Wake Technical Community College. “The truth will be in the numbers.”

Getting the data from the pilot schools to evaluate RISE has been difficult for several reasons, but the system office completed a preliminary analysis at the end of November 2020. This analysis shows the corequisite courses seem to be working, but students are not succeeding in the transition courses, which are courses for students with a GPA below 2.2. 

Tweaking the model

“As we identify things, we think about how we need to tweak the model, research the model, and fine tune it,” said Bill Schneider, associate vice president of research and performance management at the system office.

Complete College America, a postsecondary research and advocacy organization, published a review of RISE in September 2020. The report makes several recommendations to improve the effectiveness of RISE. Between this report, the preliminary data analysis, and our reporting, there are several tweaks the system and colleges should consider to improve RISE. 

Several of these are slight adjustments, like the GPA cutoff. The system’s analysis suggests a GPA of 2.6 for students to be placed in corequisite courses would work just as well as 2.8. Central Piedmont Community College has already made this change.

Almost everyone we interviewed mentioned that the number of hours students are in class with their college classes and corequisites is a barrier for students. Complete College America recommends colleges assess how many hours are needed and make that decision at a college level. 

Additionally, some colleges feel they should be able to use placement tests and not just rely on high school GPA to place students into classes. Complete College America recommends colleges should use high school GPA regardless of when a student graduated and not offer students the option of taking a placement test. 

The biggest issue with RISE suggested by both the data analysis and Complete College America is the transition courses. Currently, students with a high school GPA under 2.2 are placed into the math and English transition courses where they complete online units using the online platform NROC. Faculty are there to answer questions and assist students, but the classes are designed for students to move through at their own pace and move on when they demonstrate mastery.  

The system’s analysis found that students with a GPA less than 2.2 completed college-level math and English in their first semester and first year at lower rates in fall 2019 than in fall 2018 at RISE pilot schools. At non-pilot schools, however, completion rates for the same group increased during that time. 

Under the old model, students with a GPA less than 2.2 were either placed into developmental module courses or could test into college-level courses. Under RISE, these students were placed into transition courses and largely did not have the opportunity to test into college-level courses. So, the fact that first semester completion rates of college-level math and English declined for these students when schools implemented RISE is not surprising — they were placed in transition courses instead of having the chance to take a placement test and place into college-level courses their first semester.

However, first year completion of college-level math and English also declined for these students at RISE schools while increasing at non-RISE schools. This is more worrisome. If transition courses were successfully helping students gain foundational math and English skills, you would expect that after a semester in a transition course, students can successfully complete a college-level math or English course. Instead, fewer students are doing that under RISE than under the old model.

College faculty and administrators have different ideas of what to do about this. Some want to get rid of transition courses and return to the module courses they were using previously. Complete College America recommends essentially getting rid of transition courses and allowing all students to enroll directly in college-level courses with the option of a corequisite. The report states:

“There is a misconception, unsupported by consistent evidence, that corequisite support only aids students who place just below defined measures of college-readiness. However, a study from Tennessee, as well as more recent studies from California and CUNY, show that corequisite support benefits students across all levels of academic preparedness. Furthermore, Transitions courses do not address one of the main problems of traditional prerequisites stand-alone remediation, namely that even if students would pass numerous levels of remedial courses, requiring multiple levels of remedial courses creates extra points at which students may exit the remedial sequence before taking college-level courses.”

This is not likely to be a popular idea in North Carolina, based on our conversations with faculty and presidents. Barbitta agreed. “Honestly, I don’t know that we will ever be able to sell our faculty on putting everybody into a credit-bearing course,” she said.

However, the system office is working with the nonprofit research organization MDRC to evaluate lowering the GPA cutoff for corequisite courses potentially to 2.0 from 2.2 where it currently stands.

Supporting the students who need the most help academically has seemingly been the Achilles’ heel for North Carolina’s community colleges over the past decade. Each reform was spurred by evidence showing these students were not succeeding in developmental education, so maybe it is time for colleges to consider a different approach.

Moving developmental education to high school

An undercurrent of all this change over the past decade has been the feeling among some in the community college system that they aren’t dealing with the fundamental problem, which is students coming out of high school unprepared. 

“Our supply line, our parts, come from the public school system,” said Ken Boham, who served as president of Caldwell Community College & Technical Institute for 22 years and has since been interim president at a number of schools. “In manufacturing, when you order a part and it’s not to your specifications, you can reject it, send it back, and tell them to send it to you with your specifications.” 

“These are individuals we are talking about,” he continued. “You couldn’t say we are sending these people back to you and you prepare them … If I were king of the world, I would say let’s get together and let’s figure out how we put that rigor and that relevance back into the high school experience.” 

David Stegall, deputy superintendent of innovation at the state’s Department of Public Instruction (DPI), responded, “Children come to public schools from many walks of life, with varying degrees of strengths and needs academically, socially, and physically. Students are not cogs in a machine nor replaceable parts, and they do not all learn and grow at the same pace. K-12 standards are developed by practitioners, including teachers, industry experts, and higher education partners, and these standards are both relevant and rigorous. In the same way that not every person grows physically at the same rate, not all children develop or grasp all concepts uniformly, and K-12 teachers understand how to support them where they are to help them grow — knowing that learning is lifelong. Parents are sending us their best and we commit to those students, K-12 and beyond, regardless of struggles they may have. The partnership between K-12 and higher education is a vital pathway for all students in North Carolina.”

The fact that students are graduating public schools and having to enroll in remedial classes comes at a cost to the students, as well, in both time and money. Different colleges run the transition courses through different programs (either curriculum or basic skills), which determines the tuition cost to students. A 2015 Hunt Institute report placed the annual cost of developmental education to the state at $125 million in 2012 before major reforms brought that cost down.

North Carolina’s legislature agreed with Boham. As the story goes, a relative of former state senator Chad Barefoot graduated from a prestigious high school in Wake County, and when he went to enroll at Wake Technical Community College, he was placed in remedial math.

That prompted Barefoot to sponsor legislation in 2015, called College and Career Ready Graduates (CCRG), which mandated that the community college system develop remedial courses for high school students who are not prepared for college or a career to take in their senior year. 

Faced with this task, the community college system decided to use the NROC EdReady software for these courses — the same software they use in the transition courses. The idea was that students can complete the math and English units before graduating high school so they can enter college-level courses immediately. If they don’t finish all the units or don’t demonstrate mastery, they can continue in NROC seamlessly at community college. 

CCRG implementation has taken longer than expected for several reasons. Stegall, who joined DPI in March 2019, cited the lack of funding for DPI to implement it as a key reason why there’s been a delay in getting started. 

“We got zero dollars to implement CCRG,” Stegall said. “The cost for NROC is pretty significant, and we weren’t funded.”

DPI managed to find funding to purchase NROC memberships for all 9th through 12th grade students at a cost of $469,000. Starting in January, high school students who have an unweighted GPA of 2.2 to 2.79 by the end of their junior year will be required to take the math or English CCRG course their senior year. According to Laura Kalbaugh and Brigette Myers, community college administrators who have been leading the CCRG effort, they focused on this group of students because they did not see much success in using the NROC platform with students with a GPA below 2.2.

NROC staff and the community college system held webinars and led professional development for high school staff in the fall. However, with the ongoing disruption from the pandemic, it’s unclear how many schools will actually get started this spring. 

“I think [this is] going to be a soft start,” Kalbaugh said. “School districts are going to do what they can do, as much as they can do, in January. Exactly what it’s going to look like is a little up in the air.” 

Community college leaders are hopeful that once CCRG gets started, they will have fewer students coming to them needing remediation. “We do hope that [CCRG] will reduce, at least, but hopefully eliminate their need for any prerequisite remediation and possibly corequisite,” Kalbaugh said. This will save students both time and money, she pointed out.

Key takeaways

“I’ll make this argument all day long that corequisite works,” Schneider said.

Throughout our reporting, we heard and saw what it takes to implement RISE and help students succeed in developmental education. 

We heard that leadership matters — both the buy-in of leadership as well as their role in setting a purpose and vision centered around student success. We heard that mindset is critical. If faculty and administrators do not believe all students can be successful, then students won’t believe it either. 

We saw the importance of making students feel like they belong and can succeed — many told us that building students’ confidence in themselves is half the battle in developmental education. We also saw the importance of hiring the right people, the people who will build students up and believe each one can be successful. 

And finally, RISE showed us the importance of getting data in a timely manner. Had the system been able to get data from pilot colleges and analyze it sooner, colleges would be more confident in their decision making and better able to make adjustments that serve students.

One of the reasons the data was hard to get is because the IT systems at each college were not set up to collect the data and send it to the system office in a standardized way. The programming that was necessary to make sure colleges could do that did not happen before the RISE pilot started, said Lisa Chapman, president of Central Carolina Community College and former chief academic officer at the system office.

“You’ve got to have patches and different things that have to come from Raleigh to all the colleges for that to take place,” Chapman said. “Because of how our system started a number of years ago, it’s been a challenge.”

Additionally, there are challenges working with new data from colleges due to varying practices associated with data collection and entry, said Schneider.

The community college system has been asking the legislature for funding to upgrade their IT systems for the past two years. This is one reason why they are asking for that funding.

Perhaps the greatest lesson we learned, however, is that improving developmental education reform is necessary but not sufficient. These reforms must go hand in hand with others meant to improve student access and success in higher education. 

Nikki Edgecombe, senior research scholar at the Community College Research Center, explained, “Institutions are realizing discrete efforts to improve developmental education or advising or high school to college transitions or transfer and articulation are useful, but they are much more powerful when they are done in a strategically coordinated way.” 

In the end, all of these changes and those to come are meant to help students succeed and better their lives. 

“Conceptually, it’s not developmental education we’re trying to reform,” said Josh Wyner, executive director of the College Excellence Program at the Aspen Institute. “What we’re trying to do is connect students who are not college ready and who will be on the margins of society if we don’t get them connected to college.”

Behind the Story

Molly Osborne and Emily Thomas reported and wrote this series. Analisa Sorrells, Eric Frederick, and Mebane Rash edited it.

Over the course of four months, we interviewed five North Carolina Community College system office staff, 10 former or current community college presidents, 18 community college administrators, 14 faculty members, 14 students, one Department of Public Instruction administrator, and nine community college researchers and national experts.

Molly Osborne

Molly Osborne is the director of news and policy for EducationNC.