Beyond the Curriculum: Supporting High-Need Populations to Completion

Published apr. 07, 2016

Principle 4. Additional academic support should be integrated with gateway college-level course content — as a co-requisite, not a pre-requisite.

Principle Four opens the question of what needs to be done for students who enter college with skills so low that it is not likely they can benefit from default placement in a college-level course. The honest answer is that we don’t know. Whatever the eventual solutions, student supports will need to be a central feature. Principle Four focuses on “additional academic support,” but I argue that “additional support” needs to go far beyond the academic. 

Students who enter community colleges and are assessed at the lowest levels have needs that go beyond academic underpreparation alone. Undoubtedly a large proportion of the students with very weak skills face cumulative barriers and need comprehensive supports to persist to completion. Curricular solutions alone miss the point entirely. We must acknowledge this fact and commit to addressing it if we are to succeed in redesigning developmental education in a truly equitable way. 

Who Are these Students?

We tend to think of students in the lowest levels as a single group. Figuring out what works for students in the lowest levels of developmental education requires that we reexamine that assumption. The students in the lowest levels could have dramatically different characteristics and educational experiences.

Many are black and Hispanic recent high school graduates from schools that are so ill-equipped to provide a high school education that even an “A” student might reach community college deeply underprepared for college-level work. Recent high school graduates who did not take a rigorous curriculum or did not take math all four years could be assessed to be multiple levels below college proficiency.

Other students are opportunity youth—young people aged 16-24 who are not in school or employed. Opportunity youth may have significant gaps in their high school education because of frequent mobility due to home insecurity, school suspension and expulsion, and stints of not attending school at all. For these students who earn a diploma, there is a high likelihood that they may be assessed as high need upon enrolling in community college. 

Finally, adults who return to college having been out of the workforce for many years may need to improve their basic skills. It should be no surprise that returning adults will have very different levels of ability upon enrolling in postsecondary education. Some adults’ high school experience may have provided a strong foundation, but they may be returning many years later. Other returning adults may have had weak high school backgrounds with significant gaps. 

This is a diverse group with diverse needs, and solutions need to reflect that diversity. At the same time, one thing they all share is a need for comprehensive supports. 

Comprehensive Student Success Strategy

The Core Principles call for a dramatic departure from traditional developmental education by putting student success at the forefront of the approach. The logical outcome of this revision is that all the principles must be applied within Principle Four. Rather than thinking about which curricular model works for students who need high levels of support, the Core Principles suggest that determining students’ education and work goals and then aligning any needed supports to those goals is as important as the specific instructional delivery model, perhaps even more important. 

A comprehensive student success strategy must consider the services and supports students will need to persist to completion. And those supports need to be embedded in students’ regular experience at the college, not something they must seek out on their own. Financial aid is a good example. 

Rather than process financial aid separate from students’ work and education goals and life circumstances, financial aid counselors should be trained to understand and advise on all the financial support students may be able to access. This certainly includes Pell, but it also includes Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) resources, and other financial supports for which a student may be eligible that would increase the odds of them having the financial means to pay for rent, transportation, and food long enough to persist to completion. 

Each of the student populations that arrive underprepared in multiple areas will have experienced many factors in their lives and educational experience that contribute to their extremely low levels of preparation and decrease their chances of completion. Any model that doesn’t address the issues such students may be facing outside the classroom is bound to fall short. A commitment to equity requires acknowledging the fragile social and economic conditions from which many severely underprepared students come, and securing the resources that will support them to persist to completion. While providing comprehensive supports is expensive, leaving these students behind is much more costly for individuals, their families and communities, and for our nation as a whole. 


This is the fourth in a series by Michael Collins. 


Read his statement on the release of the Core Principles.