Chet Jordan stood in front of his class at Guttman Community College dressed in black skinny jeans and a bowler hat, sipping coffee. He took a straw poll of his students: How many of you know that this school doesn't place students in not-for-credit remedial classes?
The answer surprised him. Not only were the six students in the room aware of the policy, they all said it was a central reason they chose Guttman.
Remedial education has been the proverbial thorn in the side of higher education for decades. Students are placed in remedial math and English courses when they are deemed unprepared for college-level work, and traditionally must pass them before enrolling in classes that count toward a degree.
Not only do remedial classes become a hurdle that nearly half the students don't clear, they cost up to an estimated $7 billion of student and taxpayer money nationally. A Hechinger Report investigation of 44 states found that nearly all two-year schools that award associate degrees report having students who are placed into developmental education.
But not Guttman.
The 945-student school, which opened in August 2012 as part of the City University of New York (CUNY) system, is designed to break the community college model in many ways. Students are required to attend a two-week summer orientation program, must enroll full time in their first year and are grouped in cohorts to foster a sense of community. But perhaps the biggest deviation is that the school has eschewed traditional remedial courses altogether, building that content into its first-year curriculum and giving students whatever extra support they need in the credit-bearing classes.
The premise is that students can learn grammar while learning how to structure a research paper; that they can master algebraic concepts while learning statistical theories. The idea is to treat college readiness not as a binary distinction — either students are ready or not — but as a continuum that students enter at a variety of skill levels. Research has suggested that students who score just above and just below the cutoff on a needs-remediation test will perform similarly when placed directly into college-level classes.
"The decision to place into [remediation] or not can have very high-stakes outcomes," said Stuart Cochran, Guttman's dean of strategic planning and institutional effectiveness. "The rationale for making that decision is often very weak."
But remediation is still relied upon in the CUNY system. In 2013, nearly 80 percent of first-time freshmen at CUNY community colleges needed remediation in at least one subject. A remediation task force was created in 2015 to analyze the issue and come up with recommendations to change remedial placement and instruction across the system. The hope at CUNY, and at community colleges across the country, is that cracking the remediation puzzle will raise graduation rates.
In 2015, CUNY's three-year graduation rate across all community colleges was 21 percent. At Guttman, it was 49.5 percent,
Guttman's strategy is somewhat a blend of two other popular means of solving the remediation problem. One solution is to enroll students in remedial classes and college-level courses at the same time. This so-called co-requisite model still uses tests to screen students, but doesn't delay students from earning college credit, and has shown promising results around the country.
The other solution is to ban remediation outright. The City University of New York system has done so at the four-year level, as have several states, including Arizona, Hawaii and Tennessee. Students who are deemed to need remediation in those places may still take it at two-year institutions, however.
By contrast, Guttman enrolls dozens of students who would be placed in remediation courses elsewhere, and immediately puts them in college-level, credit-bearing classes.
Cochran acknowledges the model wouldn't necessarily work for all schools, such as large community colleges where significant portions of the student body attend part-time and where some students may be coming in with extreme skill deficiencies. Many students at Guttman need extra support, but they still have a minimum level of competency.
To ensure that baseline, Guttman refers students who are behind in all three potential remediation areas — math, reading and writing — to CUNY Start, a 15 to 18-week course that costs $75 and focuses on basic skills. After completing it, the students can start at Guttman.
"We don't just say, OK, put everybody into a college credit course and they're going to succeed," Cochran said. "If it were that simple, everybody else would have done it."
In math, all students still must take a placement test. Those who pass it take a one-semester statistics course and can then move on to other courses. Everyone else takes two semesters of statistics — but earns credit for both.
In English, all students are enrolled in a four-strand program called City Seminar. Across three classes — Reading and Writing, Quantitative Reasoning and Critical Issues — students study
and write about different aspects of an overarching theme. In the fall semester, the theme for Jordan's students was "Structural Inequities and Radical Possibilities."
After his straw poll, Jordan pulled up a Vladimir Lenin quote about class political consciousness. He asked students to write about what they thought it meant. From there, Jordan led a discussion that touched on Plato's Allegory of the Cave, student debt, cultural appropriation and white privilege. He and the two most vocal students in the class debated what the modern-day definition of "working class" should be.
When the hour and a half ended, Jordan talked for a few minutes with a student who was contemplating dropping out due to personal problems, then walked down the hall to his next class. There, students worked on revising their first paper of the semester.
A primary goal of City Seminar is to introduce students to college-level writing. Jordan's students had to pull from readings they'd done to answer the question, "What is structural inequality?" As Jordan worked with students one-on-one, he reminded several to go back to check a handout on how to organize the paper.
Students in this class, too, found Guttman's no-remediation approach appealing. Maura McHale, for instance, said she sometimes struggles with math. She is taking the two-semester statistics course, but appreciates that she is earning college credit both semesters. "I really don't want to pay for an extra class," she said.
Samantha Stevens worried that she would be placed in remedial English if she went to another community college. (It took her until June, after she'd already decided on Guttman, to score high enough on her English Regents exam to guarantee that she could go straight to college-level English at another school.)
Even so, she said that Guttman's classes are more challenging than the ones she took in high school. "It's a lot more complex," she said. High school was simpler: "They ask you a question, you answer it." She said she's never written a paper like the one assigned in City Seminar.
Several students said they appreciated Guttman's small class sizes and the feeling of support they got from professors and counselors. All students must also attend the fourth component of City Seminar, called Studio, in which students can work on assignments and get help as needed.
"It's not so much we feel all students need remediation," Cochran said. "It's that for all students, simply demonstrating minimal proficiency in a subject doesn't really prepare them for college-credit coursework. Every student needs some guidance in making that transition from high school to college."