The United States of America was founded on the hope of a better life. That is, it was founded on the opportunity to better oneself. At the beginning of the last century (circa 1901), with the industrial revolution in full force, a need for a better trained workforce began with the concept of an alternative to universities for students who were not university material: the community college. This unique to the USA idea allowed a second chance for citizens to better their lives. With the returning veterans of World War II and the GI Bill, the concept swept across the Nation allowing millions of people the opportunity to better themselves. The figures for the 2011-2012 school year indicate that over 8 million students attended community colleges, accounting for nearly half of all undergraduate education. Unfortunately, many of those students will no longer have that opportunity.
State Legislatures across the Nation are enacting laws that limit the opportunity for students to successfully complete college level work at the community college. Currently, about 60% of students entering community colleges are deficient enough in basic reading, writing, and/or mathematics skills that they test into remedial (i.e., developmental education) courses. Of those students who take developmental education courses, only about 25% continue on to earn a degree. Thus, there is a negative correlation between taking developmental education courses and completing a college degree, which lawmakers interpret as “developmental education doesn’t work.” We don’t know that; what we do know is that those 25% who were successful may not have the opportunity to find out!
Many States are passing statutes that they claim “allow opportunity” at higher education. Instead, the laws will adversely affect the number of students who ultimately do succeed. Here in Florida we passed a law that allows students to opt out of developmental education. So a student who can’t add whole numbers (forget about signed numbers) is now allowed to register for a college level math course, which assumes the student has a sound foundation in basic pre-algebra principles.
Consider a task the majority of us have had to do: feed ourselves. Most of us probably started by learning to toast a slice of bread, make a sandwich, or prepare a bowl of cereal. We certainly didn’t start our meal preparations with a soufflé. Even if you did create a successful soufflé 5 years ago, it doesn’t necessarily mean you could do it again on your first attempt today. The same goes for skills you learned in high school. If you haven’t used them in a while, you are probably not proficient with them and therefore would not be very successful. Whereas, as with the cooking analogy, if you had the opportunity to practice making a few easier dishes and regaining your confidence and then attempting the soufflé again, you would probably be more successful – or at the very least you wouldn’t feel so overwhelmed.
Being a high school dropout and returning to college 10 years after the fact, I have a personal stake in this conversation. I completed a test that said I was ready for college level work, but my counselor told me I should take a remedial class in mathematics, which I did. I am very thankful for that choice, for I was successful and it helped get me to where I am today. Had I been placed (or required) into a College Algebra course, I may have been unsuccessful in my first attempt and then probably thought of myself as a failure and not completed my studies (some of my former students may have wished for that…). In other words, if students don’t have the opportunity to be successful, they will not have the opportunity to better themselves. Finally, from a much wiser man than myself, and fellow second chancer (Uri Treisman), who spoke at the NADE conference: “…democracy will fall without upward mobility…” (in reference to the legislative assault that is threatening the mission of community colleges across the Nation).