• August 28, 2015

Melinda Gates Pledges $110-Million to Help 2-Year Colleges Improve Remedial Education

Community colleges should replace weak remedial programs with innovative practices as a way to increase completion rates, Melinda F. Gates, co-chairman of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, told two-year college leaders Tuesday as she delivered the closing speech here at the American Association of Community Colleges' annual meeting.

To that end, Ms. Gates said that her foundation is spending up to $110-million to work with dozens of partners, including colleges and school districts, to develop groundbreaking models for remedial education and to replicate effective practices. About half of the foundation's commitment has already been given to colleges and programs. The remaining $57-million will be given as grants over the next two years.

Ms. Gates called traditional remedial programs "an afterthought" on most campuses. Such low-quality programs, designed to help students catch up academically, are actually the biggest obstacles students must overcome in their pursuit of a college degree, she said.

"Our research indicates that improving remediation is the single most important thing community colleges can do to increase the number of students who graduate," Ms. Gates said.

Community colleges can either "keep doing what you've been doing, in which case you will gradually find yourself able to meet fewer and fewer of your students' needs, or you can innovate," she said. "You can educate your students according to new models that yield dramatically better results for a fraction of the cost."

She said community colleges have led the way on college access and that it is now time for them to lead the way on college completion.

As many as 60 percent of students enrolled in community colleges must take at least one remedial course. But only about 25 percent of all students who take those courses earn a degree within eight years of enrolling.

Successful Models

Ms. Gates highlighted several remedial-education programs that have proved successful at two-year colleges.

El Paso Community College is working with local high schools to make sure students making the transition to college know what's expected. Students who plan to attend El Paso take the college's placement test while they are still in high school, and they can take a summer course at the college before they enroll for their first year if they don't pass the test.

Mountain Empire Community College, in Virginia, has designed new lesson plans and textbooks geared toward helping students get through the remedial phase much faster. Students in these fast-track courses review basic mathematics in a single week during the summer, and algebra in just two weeks.

In Washington state, a program called I-Best lets students do college-level work while they are still taking basic-skills classes, instead of having to pass all their remedial classes first. In pilot studies, students in I-Best were four times more likely to graduate than their peers, Ms. Gates said.

She said it is not enough to develop new models but that they must be replicated at other community colleges to have a significant impact on completion rates nationwide. She told the community-college officials and instructors that it is their role to make sure the best ideas in their fields benefit their students in the classroom.

She urged community colleges to calculate their graduation rates and share the results.

"Then we can all be clear about where we are and where we need to go," she said.


1. greenhills73 - April 20, 2010 at 02:22 pm

I know this has been said a million times, but if k-12 education was adequate, there would be no need for remedial education in college. Just how much remediation is acceptable? At what point do you say, "This student is not prepared for college, and I'm sorry it's not totally his fault, but there's only so much remediation we can do." If education in the U.S. is that bad, where do we begin to fix it? Schools cannot fix a lot of the root causes...broken familes, homelessness, poverty...

2. ifabular - April 20, 2010 at 04:16 pm

Agree with greenhills73 point that education achievement is a shared responsibility - it takes a "village" - individual, family, community, country to address many of the root causes of some of our failures to educate effectively at the K-12 level. However, from an education institution perspective, ensuring that we have teachers/faculty that trully care and are passionate about making a difference to each and every single student is essential.

3. 22097237 - April 20, 2010 at 04:17 pm

Which is why we need a higher education system willing to give our citizens a second chance. Not everyone can overcome their childhood as a child. But at least some adults get their act together and are ready to work hard to overcome bad childhood situations. But even the most motivated adult will have trouble getting ready for college without some help.

4. ophe07 - April 20, 2010 at 04:32 pm

Community colleges generally take all comers. Once the student is enrolled they are the college's responsibility no matter the student's preperation. At some point we need to quit whinning and get to work.

5. wmwelburn - April 20, 2010 at 04:53 pm

I'm all for fixing public school systems. Until that day comes, however, community colleges will continue to do the heavy lifting. If we provide community colleges with the resources they need to do this job effectively, and if we continue to promote effective transfer agreements between 2- and 4-year institutions, perhaps we will also see success in baccalaureate achievement.

6. dwestbrook - April 20, 2010 at 06:01 pm

The problems with the public schools are systemic and these monoliths are very slow to change. The very basis of the system (property tax) creates inequality. Nevertheless, a poor carpenter blames his tools. The job of educators is to educate. I direct a program that offers academic support to non-traditional students who do not meet admissions standards. Our retention and graduation rates are greater than traditional students. It is possible to remediate students whether they are straight out of our public school systems or returning to college after a number of years. As has been mentioned, the community colleges do a lot of this very necessary work.

7. dbrad61 - April 20, 2010 at 08:20 pm

Remediation means "coming between again" or "reforming the relationship." If that is really what happens, good. For the most part, however, remediation means a bunch of busy work and formulaic activity. What students need is real "reform of the relationship" that they have with education. They need to see learning as the essence of life--as what makes life both possible and meaningful. They need to see writing and mathematics as forms of THINKING--which makes them valuable and intriguing. And it takes a different kind of remediation to make these things happen.

Melinda, spend your money more wisely!

Brad Sullivan
Professor of English
Western New England College

8. gussguss - April 21, 2010 at 07:46 am

I would urge each of us to think about the group of students that were in our high school graduating class. How many of those students could have entered a College Algebra class and gotten a C? I do not think the math remediation numbers are a recent development. I believe this has always been the case, we just recognize it today because the need for math skills in the workplace has changed significantly. Melinda is pushing us in a good direction, where we go with it as institutions is up to us.

9. scatlin - April 21, 2010 at 08:47 am

While I cheer the social philanthropy of Melinda Gates and all other foundations that support student achievement, isn't it time for high schools and community colleges to renew partnerships and each pledge substantial, specifically targeted dollars to address the remedial/development challenge? The answer is YES......if we are serious about student success.

10. hlsimmons - April 21, 2010 at 09:59 am



11. evbiii - April 21, 2010 at 10:27 am

I'm glad we are talking about remediation again. Under-preparedness is not the fault of the student. To develop academic skills teachers must be equipped with the confidence and know-how required to reach the diversity of ability one will experience in the classroom. Give some money to academic success programs but make sure there is some staff development to compliment those financial resources.

12. hccbrandonlibrary - April 21, 2010 at 10:45 am

It's estimated that nearly 60% of cc students need remediation. There's also a struggle between retention/student success and remediation.

13. dxulibs - April 21, 2010 at 11:04 am

Secondary schools and environmental factors, including the home-life support structure, are critical components in the student's education. If we can address this issues, then community colleges can serve as less of a remediating force and more of an extended college-prep. course. I am a master's level student and intend to address these issues and develop a model for addressing this crisis within the secondary school system.

14. the_book123 - April 21, 2010 at 11:42 am

How often do we, the university professors, have to be reminded that the elementary, middle and high school teachers are our products? Let us be real, let us revamp our teacher eduaction programs at all levels. There is nothing unusual about two-year institutions partnering with K-12 and four year institutions. The Wisconsin System is an excellent model where you have University of Wisconsin Colleges (2-years), Wisconsin Technical Colleges (2-years) all connected to the community, the universities and K-12 schools.

15. intered - April 21, 2010 at 12:55 pm

To the Gates Foundation:

First, thank you for your attention to and support of this important initiative.

Second, as you develop this initiative, I encourage attention to the use of instruments that are not only valid as measurement tools but are authentic to the lives of the learner. Both will present challenges and current practice will not be a good guide.

Third, and most important, please ensure that you define success based on pre/post-testing every intervention. This may sound trivial or obvious but the standard model is to pre-test into remedial interventions and then rely on the grade earned as a proxy for a post-test. Over a decade or so, we pre/post-tested remedial quantitative courses and found (a) many courses showing little pre/post gain, (b) low correlations between grades assigned and either pre/post gains or post-test scores.

Were it not for our insistence on rigorous post-testing procedures, offered against considerable institutional resistance, we would have had no way of determining which methods were effective and which were not. Based on our experiences, most are not. -- Robert W Tucker

16. bleckb - April 21, 2010 at 03:51 pm

For me, some of the language of this is troubling. All of the high school experience seems to be lumped under "remedial" education. This is a fundamental perception concern, that much of what students need are limited to remedial skills, that there is no education, only certification on certain skills, usually math, reading and writing. The notion is that these things are somehow finished, that once we read at level x, we don't need to work on reading, or writing, or math, or whatever. It's a dangerous perception and shows that Gates is at least somewhat out of touch with what happens in all of education, much less what we do in community colleges. I teach developmental and transfer classes, and what she says strikes me as wrongheaded and ill-informed, catering wholly to the neo-liberal notion of certification and undermining the traditional focus of the liberal arts education, an education she and Bill both had plenty of access to before focusing on tech concerns.

17. deepwater - April 21, 2010 at 05:08 pm

I wonder what iteration is this? We all join hands, stand in a circle and sing cum-by-yah while worshipping at the feet of another foundation that knows the truth. If a kid starts school reading below grade, it takes a monumental effort to get them on grade....hopefully, at some point in his/her elementary career. The point of origin to this problem precedes school, but school is where society gets first drift of the problem. Remediation to get the kid back on grade can be done and it is being done. The methodology is not the issue. Why they aren't on grade is the question that needs to be addressed if this systemic problem will ever be solved. This is where the extraordinary dollars should be spent in order to understand and address illiteracy. As in medical care, the significant resource should be spent on prevention. It must seem easier to treat the effect.

18. dwestbrook - April 22, 2010 at 05:04 pm

I think the distinction needs to be made between remedial and developmental education. Remedial education has largely been focused on overcoming academic deficiencies (most notably in math, reading, writing, and science). The purpose here is to "re-teach" what has been determined (typically through placement testing) as a deficit in the student's preparation that will negatively impact college level coursework. These remedial courses address issues beyond that of tutoring and typically are numbered below 100 level. Developmental education addresses the diverse talents of students at the college level. This is usually addressed in our general education and/or liberal arts programs/requirements. These courses are not remedial and usually have a 100-level seminar course with knowledge and skills reinforced in subsequent courses above that level. I don't believe developmental education falls within the scope of this effort. Perhaps it should, but at this point remediation should be the foundation. Community colleges are best positioned to address these issues and I'm glad that someone is actually putting significant resources toward addressing a very fundamental issue in higher education.

19. deepwater - April 24, 2010 at 06:13 pm


I agree with your comments and distinctions. However, the better dicussion might be a clarification of "who and what." I am thinking of two distinctions here: 1) students who are for whatever reason not prepared to benefit from school. Many variables are in play here: 1) cognitive function 2) emotional maturity 3) health and nutrition 4) family and socio-economic status, etc. So, what are the best strategies for identifying and resolving any of those variables (and many other possible ones). The second issue is fundamentally individual differences that occur natually in the population. How in the world does a simgle system of education respond to all those differences? Or is the easier approach to say we are all capable of achieving the same things and the same levels...if given the chance? It sounds like such a simple point of view for such an complex problem. Perhaps we could work to make sure there is equal opportunity and then help and support students develop their potential....without putting the entire process into some framework that may have little or no application for ...let's say 50% of the population.

20. edwardcj - April 25, 2010 at 11:06 pm

22097237, that's nonsense - students do not need a "second chance" at the CC level. The public school system needs an overhaul so that students do not graduate without the skills needed. If they have not buckled down by high school, they probably won't.

21. intered - April 26, 2010 at 10:51 pm


Your comment, "If they have not buckled down by high school, they probably won't." besides being a rather hard-nosed sentiment that was hopefully not applied to you at some time when you needed a little extra consideration in some facet of your life, is provably false.

Many individuals who did poorly in high school, and more who did poorly in their first attempt at college, eventually find the motivation and therefrom the discipline to succeed in college.

As I peruse some of the comments above, I see an apparent lack of awareness that nearly half of the nation's college students are adults, most of whom work, have family and adult social responsibilities. These individuals, numbering in the millions (please, study the statistics available to anyone who cares to incorporate them in his opinions) earn degrees and progress in their personal and professional lives. Many of those those who have taught all college age groups find working adults to be the most delightful learners. They know why they are there and they work toward defined goals.

22. pwynnnorman - April 28, 2010 at 07:58 am

We can't wait for the secondary schools to address this problem and they never will address it fully.

I support this effort with my heart and soul because I think many, many, many older adults' lives are stunted because lacking basic skills--and the expanded cognitive capacities such skills foster--limits them so severely in their career options AND in their everyday lives.

Does anyone know how individuals can get involved in this? I've taught remedial writing and reading, long ago, but not recently. I'd feel a lot more fulfilled doing that now that I am more able to choose the path of my academic career. Is there a contact organization for this effort?

23. stevebrandon - April 28, 2010 at 09:03 am

Most of us are missing the point. Yes, K-12 has work which needs to be done to better prepare students for college, but the mission of K-12 hasn't been to prepare students for college; it's to provide a basic level of education. For well over a century, college was reserved for only a very small percentage of the population. Now, a large percentage of the population attempts and has access to college. However, a much smaller percentage are ever on the "college" track in high school, taking AP course work, or involved in dual enrollment. Yet, a higher percentage attempts college, regardless of how they were tracked in high school or how well prepared they are.

In large part, the problem being addressed has nothing to do with with K-12. Community colleges have the mission of keeping the doors open. This means many of our students make the choice to do the first years of their college career in the community and then transfer. This means many students are returning for a college career after having been in the workforce. This means many students who are seeking associates degrees to enter fields that don't require a BA or BS. This means ESL students. This means work places and workers looking for improved literacy skills just to do the job. In short, all kinds of students walk through the doors, and those of us teaching in community colleges teach the students in front of us, not some ideal student who is well prepared and well supported by scholarships or parents. Most students work. Almost half work full-time. Many have families. Only a third of the students I teach fit easily into the categories which once could be regarded as "traditional." It is the most challenging and most satisfying teaching I've ever done.

Community college transfer and degree courses are no different than those taught at research ones or any other college. I've taught in both the research one and the community college, so I have a basis for comparison. Accreditation and a high degree of professionalism assures our learning outcomes are comparable or of a higher standard than any where else. Where we do differ is that it is common that a student is not prepared for the rigors of first year composition and rhetoric or math; the non-working student is rare; and, we have to work to create social learning opportunities, because the focus of the student's life often isn't our college.

Remediation and developmental programs are designed to identify those who need help developing the skill and knowledge set needed to succeed in those first year, for-credit courses. We don't often have the luxury of bemoaning the failure of K-12. The students we receive aren't failures. They're folks who have decided to make a better life, and they start from where they are, not where society would like them to be given world enough and time. It is very common for students to get tested and to realize that they have a year or more of non-credit coursework prior to ever getting to what our society has defined as "real," for-credit college level work. It's at this point we loose many students. They've been failed by the system, and they are right in being discouraged.

College prep classes are often expensive, both to students and to the college. My developmental English course, for instance, is five credit hours. We need the time to allow for the intensive work-shopping and the individualized attention many students need. While in my class, students often take advantage of academic support--an additional expense to them in terms of time and to the college to hire tutors and train them.

Now, think of yourself as a community college student. You've decided that college is the means to a better life. You've just been identified as needing a year or more of "remedial" college prep work, which you will probably be doing as you work and trying to keep or to start a family. It's rational to ask, "Just how bad is my current life? Is college worth the expense?" The Gates Foundation has recognized that if this group of students is to succeed, we need to question our current set of remediation practices. Maybe a five credit hour prep course is too much for too many. Maybe a refresher is all which is needed. Maybe mainstreaming with tutoring is the best practice--again, a very expensive option. However, the practices which work are not currently in wide circulation nor are instruments which precisely ID which students might profit from one form of remediation and which from another. Remember, our students aren't considered traditional. Too many aren't considered or consider themselves "college material," and research and funding has been concentrated on research, not teaching missions.

The Gates Grant seems aimed at getting best practices into circulation, working toward better entrance assessment instruments, and--what's needed more than anything--experimentation to find out what works best. Remember, those of us on the ground are teaching 15 hours per semester, that is, if we're lucky enough to be full time; and, we are not just teaching developmental. We're also preping for a couple of comps and a second year course or two. Money for release time, so we can explore options; money to fund travel to conferences, so we can learn what others are doing and circulate the better practices we discover; money to offset the expense of experimentation; money to fund alternatives while institutions are convinced of their worth...these are very, very welcome. That is, if we're to keep the doors open and help students with the potential to succeed actually make their way through to the education they desire.

It's a good investment. We've been riding the innovation of the talent pools created by the GI Bill, Civil Rights, and Gender Equity. If we're to increase the talent pool, which our society needs to to maintain its current standard of living, then we need to open the doors wider, not bar them further. If we're to open the doors wider, it will be to those who aren't traditional students, even as defined by the GI Bill and Civil and Gender Rights. We need measures which help these non-traditional students succeed at true college level work. We need means to support them on their journey, and we've got to teach the students in front of us and get them through that critical period of their first fifteen hours of college, for-credit work.

24. intered - April 28, 2010 at 11:34 am

I'm pleased to see the support developing for this. Please recall, though, that the post-remediation grade is not an adequate or even accurate indicator of success. I hope that the Foundation will support authentic post-assessments.

25. pwynnnorman - April 28, 2010 at 11:34 am

Steve, you wrote: I've taught in both the research one and the community college, so I have a basis for comparison. Accreditation and a high degree of professionalism assures our learning outcomes are comparable or of a higher standard than any where else."

So have I, but I have to disagree with you on what "assures our learning outcomes." I've worked on accreditation committees at three institutions--universities and one community college--and none of them had any intention of implimenting any of the assessment strategies they described in their self studies. Resistance among the old guard is huge. What works, IMO, is having those standards in place, but--far, far, FAR more importantly--having adminstrators "in place" to support faculty who respect those standards.

I firmly believe that when it comes to quality education, quality comes from leadership at the top. A good teacher becomes a push-over, rubber-stamper if he or she is pushes standards that scare students out of the FTE seats. All the headgames out there won't get busy, stressed, just-get-me-through, defensive, intimidated, overworked, etc., etc., etc., community college students to get beyond their handicaps if someone isn't behind them--and their instructors--PUSHING. I argue this because I've seen how very, very hard it can be for so many underprepared students. It has a huge impact on their psyche, but I don't think the solution is to coddle them. It's be realistic with them. But to be realistic also requires back up from the folks students go to with their complaints.

26. jmalmstrom - April 29, 2010 at 02:56 pm

"You can educate your students according to new models that yield dramatically better results for a fraction of the cost."

Drum roll please ... and your examples are? Sylvan learning Centers maybe? I love it when people outside the field point to new models without specifying the models.

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