06/22/2012 01:22 pm ET

Maryland Community Colleges Taking A Different Approach To Remedial Coursework: PBS

About 1.7 million students nationwide are enrolled in remedial courses at a cost of $3 billion to U.S. taxpayers. These developmental classes -- often taken on a non-credit basis -- are largely unsuccessful at catching students up so that they are adequately prepared for ensuing credit-earning coursework. Many at the community college level end up dropping out.

According to Stan Jones of Complete College America, remedial classes bring in much-needed tuition revenue that in turn supports other academic departments. In this way, remediation operates as a cash cow for colleges.

PBS NewsHour producer John Tulenko profiled two Maryland community colleges that are taking different approaches to the problem of developmental coursework.

At Anne Arundel Community College, instructors gave students the opportunity to take classes online, to account for the fact that many come in having received varying levels of instruction in different subjects. By taking classes on a computer, students are “working where they need to work,” according to math department chair Alicia Morse.

“Lecture classes don’t allow that flexibility,” she says.

The computer provides small video lectures, power points and step-by-step solutions. Students at Anne Arundel Community College attend lab classes once a week, but can also work online or on their smart phones in order to finish the course sooner.

The community college also offers mini modules — short, computer-based courses targeting areas of weakness — as an alternative to semester-long remediation.

The passing rate for basic skills math is up from 50 percent to 60 percent thanks to the college’s online initiative.

At the Community College of Baltimore County, remedial writing courses had a nearly 70 percent dropout rate, prompting Peter Adams — who teaches basic skills writing — to propose a new approach.

Today, developmental students are immediately enrolled in a full-credit English 101 class, along with their better-prepared peers. Afterwards, students in need of more help meet with the teacher for an extra hour of instruction.

“The student no longer sees the developmental class as a hurdle keeping them from English 101. They’re in English 101, and the developmental class is something they’re taking that will help them in the class. So you no longer have to say ‘This will be really useful next semester.’ It’s useful right now,” Adams says.

Basic skills writing has gone from a 70 percent failure rate, to a 70 percent pass rate.