Nevada colleges scrap remedial classes, blamed for low graduation rates

Noticeably absent from Nevada's colleges and universities as the fall semester gets underway: traditional remedial classes

In their place is a so-called “corequisite model,” a relatively novel paradigm nationwide that was more recently developed and scaled across Nevada after regents voted to mandate a switch in the summer of 2019. 

Where traditional remediation relies on a so-called prerequisite model — which might require a student to pass multiple, semester-long remedial math or English classes (that do not count toward college credit) before being allowed to enroll in college-level coursework — corequisite models eliminate separate classes altogether. 

Instead, students who require remediation receive additional “supports” — such as so-called “just-in-time” instruction that reminds students of key concepts as they emerge or re-emerge through the trajectory of a class — that are delivered as an integral part of an entry-level college course that counts for credit. 

“With corequisite remediation, I always use the analogy of a YouTube video, when you're, say, cooking an omelet,” Crystal Abba, Nevada System of Higher Education vice chancellor for academic and student affairs, said. “It's like having the video support for you while you're flipping the egg. It tells you exactly what you need to do when you need to do it.”

Implementation of the corequisite model this fall follows in the wake of an internal NSHE report that found traditional methods did not work for many of the thousands of incoming college students in remediation every year. 

Students are generally placed in remediation because of low standardized test scores on college entrance exams, but emerging data through the last decade showed not only that students in remediation could likely pass college-level coursework, but also that it actually slowed the path to graduation for a disproportionately non-white group of students. 

“What our data showed was that those students that were enrolled in traditional remediation were far less likely to graduate,” Abba said.

For many students in traditional remediation, Abba said, a mix of psychological and financial barriers often snowballed as students continued to take — and pay for — classes that did nothing to advance their degrees. 

“Psychologically, it has an impact,” she said. “And many students give up before they even get there.”

Under a corequisite model, proponents say these students learn alongside their peers in an environment that ultimately reduces the number of points at which students might normally drop out of the college degree pipeline altogether. 

“This is [also] a mathematical thing,” Brandon Protas, strategy director for the non-profit Complete College America, said in an interview. “If you take, say, a 75 percent pass rate, but then you do 75 percent of 75 percent of 75 percent of 75 percent — pretty soon you get to low double digits, or even single digits because of that attrition. So it's not the faculty who are doing a bad job, it's the structure that's the problem.”

Though the mandate to implement corequisite remediation came from the  top — in this case a vote from the regents — Protas,who has for months consulted with NSHE on the corequisite policy,said the bulk of the work in creating courses has come from the faculty level following a mantra of “grass tops, grass roots.” 

A metaphor based around a top-down mandate (grass tops) being enforced by bottom-up course development by faculty (grass roots), the approach has quelled some of the early concerns presented by professors and staff. 

“When the policy was passed in June of 2019 and the timeline was established, I still, like many of my colleagues, feared what was going to happen,” Anne Flesher, dean of the Division of Math and Physical Sciences at Truckee Meadows Community College (TMCC) in Reno, told regents during their meeting on Thursday. “I feared everything was going to be decided for us. But that's not what happened.”

Even so, the changes did not come without hiccups — most notably a financial strain ultimately mitigated by private grants and gifts. That includes $1.5 million that NV Energy provided as part of a deal with the system in exchange for remaining a customer of the utility.

Then came the pandemic, a shock to a higher education landscape that had relied almost entirely on in-person modes. 

As the virus interrupted the academic year, so too did it interrupt efforts to develop and refine new corequisite courses. Tony Scinta, executive vice provost at Nevada State College in Henderson and an administrator active in the early development of corequisite pilot programs, said the pandemic forced a reassessment of online tools for corequisite courses in the midst of the broader switch to virtual learning. 

“I don't think it's necessarily that the strategy is to be online going forward with corequisite implementation,” Scinta said. “But I do think ... it's another one of the ways that we might be more versatile as an institution coming out of this crisis.”

Now, with the implementation phase complete, administrators, faculty and staff have trained their eyes on the future. 

But how quickly data may show how students are responding to the new methods depends largely on the metric in question. Protas said some metrics, such as pass rates for individual classes, will be available almost immediately, with a bulk of data available within the next academic year. 

In some cases, data from pilot programs has already pointed to large gains. That includes a pilot math program at TMCC where, according to Flesher, 762 students placed in below-college level classes completed a college-level math course. That’s roughly 30 percent more than the 587 students who had completed a college course after traditional remediation over the last three years combined. 

But some other data, such as graduation rates, will take years to assess as the broader change to corequisite takes root. 

“This is really a cultural change,” Protas said. “And when you do cultural change, that's based off of people, and people's understanding. That needs to be handled with grace, and allow that process to be able to work through it, and not just be told you have to do this, but to be able to understand the why.”