Educators Prepare For Mandated Change at Community Colleges

Students will rise to the level of expectation.

This line from Stand and Deliver, many a teacher's favorite movie, could very well describe the philosophy behind Public Act 12-40, the higher education reform law signed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy earlier this year. But not everyone is convinced that change is a good thing. The law gets rid of the classes now used to prepare underperforming students for college-level work, and replaces them with ... the best of intentions, which has some educators, community leaders, and students worried.

Under current rules, many community college students in Connecticut, those who have graduated from high school without being "college ready" in the basics such as English and math, can enroll in Connecticut's 12 community colleges under the condition that they take a series of non-credit remedial or "developmental" courses. Every year, out of 11,000 first-year students throughout the system, 70 percent, or 7,500, take pre-college courses while in college. This practice has drawn criticism from educational reformers like Complete College America, an advocacy group which points to a 10 percent graduation rate for students placed in these classes, and from lawmakers who do not believe that students should have to pay $400-$500 per course without receiving college credit.

However, many within the community colleges view the developmental courses as the cornerstone of a system that makes higher education accessible to virtually all state residents. Since students taking these courses often come from the ranks of the economically disadvantaged, outside critics such as Hunter R. Boylan, director of the National Center for Developmental Education, believe that Connecticut's reforms doing away with these courses will place an affordable college education out of reach of those who need it most, those who have been underserved by the public schools. Some Latinos have spoken out against it, including Bridgeport state Rep. Andres Ayala Jr., who said Latino college students persuaded him not to vote for it. Juan Figueroa, former president of the Universal Health Care Foundation, an advocacy group based in Meriden, called it a "poor policy."

Mark Ojakian, chief of staff to Gov. Malloy, responded to a request by the Weekly for clarification, specifically to address concerns that the changes could make it difficult for underprepared students to receive a college education. "It's everybody's intention that the doors still be open to students who want to go to the community colleges," Ojakian said.

State Sen. Beth Bye, who introduced the bill in the state legislature, denied that the law is discriminatory. "I would say that things have been misrepresented," says Bye. She is optimistic that students will find the help they need under the new system.

Bye said she, the governor and fellow legislators who worked on the bill all support the principle of open access. Ojakian summed up their intent: "The ultimate goal of this bill was to make sure that more kids moved towards degrees in community colleges, and that people did not have to exhaust their student financial aid before they were able to get to those degrees."

The law eliminates the entire stratum of developmental courses, English and math, that students have traditionally had to take if their college placement test scores fell below a certain level. Proponents of PA 12-40 have said that non-credit courses are de-motivating for students and create obstacles to success in college. Bye recalled one student, a National Guardsman, who spoke at hearings for the bill: "I'm in these boring classes with not-interesting content. This cost me a year of earnings. I got Cs in my remedial classes, and I got As when I got into the classes that were interesting."

While some other states are also de-emphasizing developmental courses, PA 12-40 places Connecticut at the head of the pack. "In New York City, we got rid of developmental courses for four-year programs," said Michael Arena, director for communications and marketing for the City University of New York (CUNY). "But getting rid of them at two-year institutions? What will they do instead?"

Connecticut's Board of Regents for Higher Education has been given the job of answering that question, and the board of regents has its work cut out for it. Other changes under the law include using "multiple commonly accepted measures of skill level" to substitute for a single placement test. It also spells out the availability of "embedded support" for students deemed ready to take college-level courses, and an "intensive college readiness program" for those who aren't.

What the law does not spell out is any guarantee that a student allowed to enroll in the state's community colleges under the current system would be deemed eligible to enroll under the new system. "They are going to be part of the college community," said Dr. Merle Harris of the board of regents, referring to those students placed in the college readiness courses. According to Dr. Harris, they will not be formally separated from the general college population for the sake of improving graduation-rate statistics.

"We are not as concerned about numbers for the sake of numbers," said Ojakian. "I think we are concerned about ensuring that students who seek to receive an education and a degree from a community college have the best route to getting there."

While this clarification from the governor's office may be welcomed by those wondering whether they or their children will still have access to an affordable college education in the future, it offers little comfort to those instructors who, in addition to worrying that the changes will not do enough to help students unprepared for the rigors of college, will be losing their jobs under the new law. With a typical freshman cohort in the community college system putting 7,500 students into these classes, and many students taking two or more of these courses at a time, that's easily 500 class sections per term that will disappear by the fall of 2014. Therefore, opposition from some employees within the community colleges will likely endure until the end. Dr. Harris says that those affected will most likely be part-timers, and she added that some could be kept on to provide the embedded support, college readiness courses and, presumably, the maximum one semester of remedial support described in the law. "But there are no job guarantees," said Dr. Harris, "that's for sure."

 

Wayne Jebian teaches developmental English at Capital Community College in Hartford.

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