Unprecedented national attention is now focusing on the community college as a critical institution for helping American workers secure economic well-being and for helping the nation as a whole to retain a competitive edge in the world economy. President Obama announced his intention to invest billions of federal dollars to strengthen these schools, with the goal of producing five million more community college graduates by 2020 — which would mean nearly doubling present-day graduation rates at most community colleges.
A major obstacle to realizing these objectives is the fact that many students arrive at community college unprepared to do college-level work and are required to take developmental (remedial) courses — which do not confer credits but for which students must pay tuition — to bring their reading, writing, and mathematics skills up to college-level standards. An analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Educational Longitudinal study shows that only 28 percent of remedial students in two-year colleges attain a degree or certificate within eight and one-half years of entry, compared with 43 percent of nonremedial students. Many students, discouraged by their inability to make adequate progress in their developmental classes, grow discouraged and drop out altogether.
The Developmental Education Initiative (DEI), funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and by Lumina Foundation for Education, sought to address these problems by supporting community colleges’ efforts to reform developmental education. The express aim, in the language of the Gates Foundation, was to transform the postsecondary system in ways that moved students “further, faster — and at far less cost in terms of time and money.” MDC, Inc., in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, managed the DEI and provided technical support to participating colleges; MDRC conducted an evaluation of the initiative.