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.
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.