Posted on Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Developmental Education: A Redesign to Meet the Promise

Submitted by Cat Finnegan, assistant vice chancellor for institutional effectiveness, Virginia’s Community Colleges

Back in 2008, Virginia’s Community Colleges recognized the need to reimagine its developmental education mission to emphasize the timely progression of students to enrollment in and successful completion of college-level course work, and ultimately, to the achievement of higher education credentials. Hundreds of faculty, staff and administrators came together to redesign placement tests, course curricula, course delivery options, registration and financial aid processes. Virtually everything that could affect our objective underwent a detailed examination, even facilities utilization.

Why was “Dev Ed” even an issue? Because prior to the redesign, more than half of students entering Virginia’s Community Colleges placed into a developmental education course and very few students made it through to complete a degree. It quickly became apparent that increasing student success in these courses was a priority.

But that was just the beginning. VCCS faculty and college leaders spent four years improving the developmental education process from the ground up with an eye on keeping our student population moving forward.

Math and English faculty members broke into two groups and attacked the problem from different angles. Their efforts culminated in a VCCS customized, computer-adapted test capable of identifying the skills students already possess and those that required additional work. Faculty members also designed a statewide curricula designed to teach the skills proven necessary for success in subsequent college courses for both English and math.

Developmental instructors joined forces with student services administrators to create support structures both inside and outside the classroom. Within the first 12 months of the project, even students who needed significant remediation had a clear pathway into college courses.

The Solution:

Beginning in the spring 2012 semester, all developmental math instruction was delivered through modularized one-credit-hour courses. A new math placement test, the Virginia Placement Test for Math (VPT-Math), identified which specific skills a student needed to master, if any, to be ready for college-level math courses.

The new developmental English redesign was implemented the following year (Spring 2013), and was characterized by the integration of reading and writing instruction in a single course. Students who were considered nearly college-ready were allowed to enroll directly into College Composition I (ENG 111) while co-enrolling in a two-credit-hour just-in-time support course.

The new Virginia Placement Test for English (VPT-English), which incorporated an essay component, was designed to assess incoming students’ English preparedness and to place them into the appropriate English course.

The redesign was based on four main system-wide goals:

  1. Decreasing the number of students enrolling in developmental education.
  2. Increasing the number of students completing developmental education requirements (1 year).
  3. Increasing the number of students successfully completing college-level math courses.
  4. Increasing student success in terms of progress, retention and graduation.

Five years after the redesigned developmental education — at scale across all 23 colleges – there is clear movement toward meeting the goals. In fact, the outcomes today are note-worthy:

 Fewer entering students are enrolling in developmental math and English courses.

  • More than half of FTIC students enrolled in developmental education courses in 2011. That number has dropped to less than 35% in 2016.

More students are successfully completing college-level math and English courses.

  • 1,800+ more students completed college-level math and English in their first term in 2016 than in 2011.

More students are earning full-time credit in their first two semesters.

  • In 2011, one in four students earned 12 credits in their first semester and 24 in their first year. By 2016, that number was one in three students.

Retention improved slightly.

  • Fall-to-spring retention of FTIC students increased from 77.6% in 2011 to 78.4% in 2016. Fall-to-fall retention increased from 54% in 2011 to 58% in 2016.

More students are graduating on time.

  • 1,121 more students completed awards in three year in 2016 than in 2011.

“Although we have more distance to cover before fully reaching our goals,” said Dr. Sharon Morrissey, vice chancellor, academic services & research, “I am incredibly proud of the incremental progress to date. I am grateful for the Herculean effort from an outstanding group of people dedicated to helping improve our students’ college experience.”

Looking Ahead

By redesigning the way the way our colleges offer developmental education, we are helping more people realize their educational aspirations. Thanks to more targeted assessment and more efficient remediation, more individuals are getting what they need to succeed in college-level math and English. As community colleges implement multiple measures for placement– considering a broader range of performance indicators – for incoming students, the process will become even more efficient. The same can be said of efforts by our colleges to work with local school divisions to identify and address the challenges individuals may have before leaving high school.

When we avoid spending tuition dollars, financial aid resources, taxpayer support, and student time on unnecessary developmental education courses, everyone benefits. That is especially true for student success and credential completion.

For a detailed report on the outcomes, please review the Mid-Point Milestones to Complete 2021 report.'

Laura Osberger


  1. ?

    Ken Broun Jr.

    Looking at your graph showing the drop in students enrolling in developmental math and English shows that the percentage drop in anywhere from 5% to down to 1% per year. That’s all well and good except for the fact that enrollments around the state in the VCCS have dropped at an annual rate of about 10%. This means that there are more students enrolling in developmental courses than in 2011 or earlier. No one in Richmond should be happy with either of these numbers.

    • ?

      Laura Osberger

      Thanks for your comment, Professor Broun. You’re right that no one should be happy about enrollment declines; we are not. In fact, we have a statewide taskforce working on this very issue as you read this. TCC has strong representation on that panel.

      That said, developmental education redesign was done to better serve those who come to our campuses by ensuring more accurate placement; increasing the number of students who complete their developmental education requirements; increasing the number of those who complete college-level courses in those subjects; and increasing the number of those who go on to graduate with a credential.

      Simply stated: the numbers indicate tangible improvement in all those areas. That’s encouraging because it means developmental education courses are actually helping those who need support, and not trapping students in classes they don’t need to be successful.

      There’s more work to be done here, certainly. Folks around the state are already looking at that and talking about what can be done. This story is far from over.

      Thanks again for sharing your thoughts on this.

      Cat Finnegan.


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