Graduating high school seniors accepted into a four-year college can arrive on campus in fall and go straight to work on their degrees. Their admissions tests took place when they were in high school and were often accompanied by test prep.
Students heading to community college may face a different challenge.
They take a college placement exam shortly before school begins to determine their readiness for college-level coursework. If they haven’t reviewed academics over the summer, they might find themselves placed in non-credit math and/or English developmental education courses, and this can slow down their path through college.
“We see high rates of students referred to developmental education,” says Michelle Hodara, an Education Northwest researcher who specializes in high school to college transition. “In some cases, this represents real struggles with math, reading, and writing. In other cases, it could be that students forgot a few key math skills over the summer and just need to brush up.”
According to Hodara, research shows that the longer the gap between a high school math course and a college placement exam, the more likely a student will wind up in developmental education. This particularly affects high school students who don’t take a math class in their senior year.
“One strategy to improve college completion is to make sure students start college in courses in their degree programs, so that they are immediately on track for degree completion. Strategies that combat summer melt may help students brush up on key academic skills, avoid developmental education, and start college in college-level coursework.” —Michelle Hodara
A strategy for community colleges to combat high rates of developmental education is to offer incoming students free or low-cost refresher courses throughout the summer. These can take the form of online modules that diagnose students’ weak areas and then cover material that will be on the college placement exams. Students can then spend a few hours at a computer improving skills that can otherwise sink them in an exam.
Another alternative is a longer on-campus course that helps students review academics while orienting them to campus life.
A strategy at the high school level includes counselors and school staff explaining the stakes of community college placement exams and emphasizing the important of preparation over the summer. Research shows a variety of reasons why students do not prepare for placement exams, and high schools can play a role in helping students become aware of what they face when going to community college and provide specific resources to help them prepare for exams.
"College preparation shouldn't be relegated just to the school year,” Hodara says. “Summer is a great time to keep learning and relearning math, reading, and writing skills that are necessary for college success."