The nonprofit organization Complete College America reported in 2012 that four in ten high school students entering college were in need of some form of developmental education upon arriving at college. Although the precise number of students in developmental courses is difficult to verify, the need for students to take these courses to ensure their academic success on campus is both undeniable and rising, with nearly a 10 percent increase between 2001 and 2012. But as the need for these classes rises, particularly in the areas of reading and writing, the stigma surrounding their necessity and content is beginning to decrease.

What is Developmental Education?

In contrast with "remedial education", a term that refers to building academic skills to prepare students for college, "developmental education" builds academic skills and provides tools for collegiate success, like study skills and confidence in learning ability. Indeed, course descriptions for Morehead State's Developmental English classes include the phrase "develop life skills" among other objectives like vocabulary, comprehension, reading rate and effective communication. When taught well, these courses improve the academic success of college students in all courses, not just developmental ones. Developmental coursework is a way to increase learning capacity over the course of students' college careers, not just their developmental classes.

When Is It Needed?

College Parents of America justify developmental education by saying "the step from high school to college may actually be better termed a large leap." However, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities correctly notes that our elementary and secondary school systems weren't originally designed to prepare students for college. What can result are students who are fully competent through high school but aren't ultimately ready for college-level work. These students could benefit fully from developmental coursework in reading or writing. A second population often benefits from developmental coursework; adult learners in need of a "refresher" on content learned years ago often take advantage of the availability of these classes.

Critics of Developmental Education

Critics of developmental education complain that taxpayers "pay twice" for a student's education -- first, on their reading or writing courses in high school, and then again in college. Others are concerned that many students leave college before completing these courses, rendering the considerable investment in them unwise. And indeed, research has revealed that students have left these courses as a result of frustration or boredom with content that they believe they already know. But the face of developmental education is changing in light of recent research to make them more effective, and the results are promising.

The New Face of Developmental Education

Several changes have been recommended to improve completion and effectiveness of developmental courses. Improved teacher education has been recommended; Francine Falk-Ross prescribes learning methods in these courses that "activate and promote students' thoughtful interaction with textual material for various purposes, such as for story, procedural knowledge, or resource information." Developmental students need these skills in upper-level reading and writing courses, and they must be developed here. Other suggestions include multiple methods of delivery like accelerated courses, online or module-based classes, and learning communities to help students learn from each other. By creating developmental courses that students can utilize and enjoy, they can be a truly effective tool for increasing college success.