02/11/2013 12:44 pm ET Updated Apr 13, 2013

Developmental Education and the 'Iron Triangle'

I don't get the "iron triangle" that some higher education leaders believe exists between cost, quality and access. That is to say, I think it's possible to reduce at least some of the costs of higher education without threatening either quality or access. In one area at Austin Peay State University, we have done precisely this -- we have lowered the costs to our students of curing developmental deficiencies. At the same time, we have improved the quality of learning of our students. Moreover, by increasing the success rates in courses for students with developmental deficiencies, we have increased access to higher education.

We have not always handled developmental deficiencies the way we do now. Once upon a time, students not ready for college-level mathematics, for example, had to take a developmental course to prepare them to take a credit-bearing mathematics course. Though they received no college credit for the developmental course, they paid full freight for the course. If they passed the developmental course, they could then pay for and take the credit-bearing mathematics course. We had a problem, though, shared by many other institutions across the country: the success rate of students in the two-course series was abysmal. About 10 percent of students who started the developmental course ultimately passed that course and the credit-bearing mathematics course.

Eventually, Austin Peay decided that a 10 percent success rate simply wasn't good enough. It wasn't enough for us to blame either high schools or students for their being unprepared for college-level work. We decided to do something different.

We abandoned the two-course sequence by abandoning the developmental course altogether. A thought-experiment made it clear that we had to change. Imagine a two-course sequence: first the development course and then the credit-bearing college course. Imagine success rates in each course of 70 percent -- a very respectable rate. What overall success rate will that produce for the two-course sequence? A not very respectable 49 percent success rate (70 percent x 70 percent). We weren't even experiencing that success rate, but the thought experiment demonstrates that we were simply on the wrong track.

So we abandoned the non-credit developmental course. We sent students with a developmental deficiency in math straight into a college-level mathematics course. But we gave these students extra support in the form of additional required tutorial sessions. Instead of charging students full freight for a three-hour noncredit course and then a three-hour credit course, we charge them only for the credit-bearing course, adding a modest $75 fee to cover the costs of the extra tutorial sessions. Ultimately, we cut the cost to developmental students of getting their college-level mathematics course nearly in half. Oh, and the success rate for developmental students passing the newly designed course? Better than 70 percent. Standardized tests taken under the old model and the new model assured us that we didn't simply start grading easier--i.e., reducing the quality of the educational experience. We improved learning, we increased access, and we lowered costs.

The "iron triangle" turned out to be considerably more malleable than we originally thought. Now I find myself thinking all the time, where else can we make such a change?