Test-optional admissions, remedial courses, and more: The Chronicle’s 2019 trends report

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently released a special report on emerging trends in higher education, calling on colleges and universities to recognize how “cultural, demographic, and economic forces are changing the world around and on campuses.” Here are five highlights with implications for access and affordability.

Shifting away from remedial courses

Hoping to eliminate what’s become “an insurmountable barrier for too many students,” higher education is moving away from remedial courses in favor of corequisite education, writes The Chronicle. The California State University system’s decision this year to eliminate its freestanding remedial courses for underprepared students signals a shift that could have cascading effects at open-access and less-selective colleges. The state’s community college system has announced plans to follow suit next year.

Under corequisite education, an accelerated pathway model, students entering college with lower English and math scores forego the remedial course funnel; instead, students start college with their peers, with supplemental tutoring, peer study sessions, and/or a companion course for support. Florida, Colorado, Georgia, Indiana, and Tennessee have also made policy changes to welcome this model.

Supporters say the corequisite model helps students pass credit-bearing courses (unlike remedial courses, where students generally do not earn academic credit). And it has far-reaching implications: according to a report by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College, two-thirds of students entering U.S. community colleges—and more than one-third of students entering less-selective four year colleges—are inadequately prepared in math and English. Advocates for corequisite education also assert that the model better serves Black and Latinx students, who are statistically more likely to see their college pursuits derailed by remedial courses.

But skeptics say there is not enough data on long-term outcomes for the least-prepared students who enter college on accelerated pathways, and that throwing students into the deep end could be counterproductive. “We want to avoid a sink or swim situation,” said Michal Kurlaender, a professor of education policy at the University of California at Davis. Some critics of corequisite education have suggested keeping remedial courses but starting them sooner, in high school.

Adopting test-optional policies

The University of Chicago’s decision last year to no longer require ACT or SAT scores for admission was a major win for the test-optional movement, writes The Chronicle. According to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, admissions teams at more than 220 colleges have decreased their reliance on standardized test scores since 2005.

Given peer pressure to de-prioritize the SAT and ACT—and the availability of more sophisticated data analyses pinpointing predictors of student outcomes—experts expect more institutions to announce test-optional policies in the coming months.

Incorporating social mobility into college rankings

Asked by lawmakers to rethink how it rates schools, U.S. News & World Report last year committed to change its college ranking formula to include social mobility. The influential ranking list has symbolic power to signify the purpose of higher education, writes The Chronicle, and this shift appears to value higher education’s role in raising income levels.

But critics urge caution when using social mobility as a metric. Economists Caroline M. Hoxby of Stanford University and Sarah Turner of the University of Virginia recently pointed out the downsides of focusing only on students eligible for Pell Grants, saying that a more nuanced approach is needed in order to increase access for a broader range of lower-income students.

Reducing use of traditional textbooks

Pointing to recent investments by New York, California, and Ohio to increase the availability of free and low-cost course materials, The Chronicle says the open educational resources (OER) movement is putting the college textbook “on the road to extinction.” Advocates are calling for materials that stakeholders can “retain, reuse, revise, remix, and redistribute,” and OER publishing ventures are answering, enabling professors to customize texts and cater to student needs.

Resulting market pressure is pushing major commercial textbook publishers to mimic OER models. Courseware materials may cease to resemble traditional print textbooks as they evolve to feature “simulated experiments, interactive test banks, and data-driven personalization,” The Chronicle writes, adding that eventually, responsibility for buying courseware may shift entirely away from the student and to universities.

Witnessing the rise of mega-universities

The Chronicle also predicts that mega-universities with massive online enrollments may one day serve “a significant share of the nation’s new college students.” Mega-institution Western Governors University, for example, has 88,585 undergraduates, greater than the aggregate population of the top 14 universities ranked in U.S. News & World Report.

Mega-universities are increasingly popular with the adult learner population. They cater especially to the needs of the 30 million American adults who have some college credits but no degree by offering inexpensive, flexible, and streamlined programs. Some schools have physical locations as well as digital courses; all prioritize the needs of working adults through offerings such as competency-based education, which converts life experiences and demonstrated expertise into college credits.

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