Looking at the Latest Community College Innovations and Reforms

January 2015

For many Americans, high tuition costs are a primary barrier to attending college and earning a postsecondary credential. President Obama’s new plan to make community college tuition-free seeks to alleviate this barrier, but the plan is not just about working with states to provide a more accessible college education. America’s College Promise proposal also expects community colleges to adopt evidence-based reforms that are shown to improve student persistence and completion.

What kinds of reforms are taking place at community colleges to improve student success?

Community colleges serve all types of students: Roughly one-half of community college students are non-white, over one-third are first-generation college-goers, and 70 percent are older than 21 years old. In addition to a diversity of demographics, the community college population encompasses a wide range of academic preparedness. Community colleges assign students to developmental education courses if they are considered academically under prepared for college-level English and math. Yet, across the country, community colleges are faced with too many incoming students who are placed in developmental education (noncredit-bearing) courses and too few developmental education students who ever complete a certificate or degree. Consequently, many of the reforms taking place at community colleges have to do with better identifying students’ academic needs and improving the outcomes of students who take developmental education courses.

These innovations and reforms are taking place across the country, and generally address four interconnected areas:

Assessment and placement

Course placement processes typically used at community colleges may over-identify the number of students needing developmental education. Today,community colleges are designing entirely new processes that encourage students to prepare for placement testing. And, they are using measures in addition to placement exams to determine students’ course placement. For example, new multiple measures policies in North Carolina and 11 California community colleges use high school grades to better identify students’ academic skill level.

Course structures

Developmental education programs traditionally encompass a sequence of at least two or three courses that students move through one term at a time until they reach college-level English and math. This kind of course structure is connected to high rates of student attrition. Many community colleges are now experimenting with acceleration strategies that shorten the time it takes for students to complete their developmental requirements while maintaining academic standards. For example, the Accelerated Learning Program allows students who place in the highest level of developmental writing to enroll in a college English course and an additional workshop to support their academic needs.


Developmental education curricula typically emphasize skill-building in reading, writing, and math. Many reforms are revamping curricula to better align with the content knowledge and critical thinking skills that students need not just for college English and math but also for their academic program. For example, new developmental math pathways being implemented across the country provide students with foundational quantitative literacy and statistics skills needed to succeed in a wide variety of fields. These courses also provide critical strategies, such as grit, to tackle challenging mathematics.


Woven through many of these reforms is an emphasis on changing classroom practice from skill-and-drill instruction on discrete skills to rigorous, engaging, and innovative instruction that prepares students to succeed in college. For example, classroom practices for the California Acceleration Project include rigorous assignments, teaching students that struggle is a part of learning, and cooperative learning strategies.

In the Northwest, Oregon is also revamping its developmental education with technical assistance from the Oregon College and Career Readiness Research Alliance. Nationally, the Developmental Education Redesign Workgroup, made up largely of faculty from the 17 community colleges, examined best policies and practices nationwide; made recommendations regarding new developmental education policies and practices; and are now implementing them. Their overall goals are to decrease student attrition and promote college completion.

What does the research say about the effectiveness of developmental education reforms?

Thus far, developmental education reforms show promise. Recent research on acceleration finds that students who took the accelerated English and math courses were more likely than a set of matched peers to successfully complete the relevant college-level math/English course within three years. Yet, more research is needed to identify reforms that work for all students. As more community colleges experiment with innovations, researchers are gearing up to conduct rigorous research on the effects of developmental education reform. This research base should help community colleges identify and implement evidence-based policies and practices that help all students succeed.

Developmental education programs and policies that better identify and serve academically underprepared students will be even more important if community colleges are tuition-free one day. More individuals may be attending community college as a way to earn a credential, start their postsecondary career before transferring to a university, and/or improve their overall well-being. The energy surrounding developmental education reform across the country is certainly a hopeful sign that community colleges are striving to meet the needs of all students who enter their doors.