Nick Timmons pledged to break with family history when he enrolled at Normandale Community College this summer: Both of his parents had started college, only to drop out well before graduation.

Early doubts surfaced when he found out he would have to take two courses to catch up on basic reading and writing skills that would earn no college credit and set him back as much as $1,500. So he jumped at a chance to take the classes over the summer for free, complete with guidance for navigating campus and free bagels.

“If I had been just thrown into college without this program, I would have no clue what I was doing,” said Timmons, a recent Shakopee High graduate.

The Minnesota State system, facing intense pressure to reform the way it delivers remedial education, is taking steps to shrink the number of students who take such courses. Those changes come amid a national push to overhaul or even eliminate what educators now call “developmental education,” which reform advocates say can spell a “dropout sentence” for students and magnify racial and income graduation gaps.

But as campuses across the country aim to draw an ever more diverse student body, some worry that the reforms go too far, too fast.

“It’s become a political hot potato to say you offer traditional developmental education classes,” said David Arendale, a professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota who studies such classes. “Change needs to happen, but this is a really turbulent time.”

Indeed, with high school graduating classes shrinking and workforce shortages looming, selective private schools and the U, which no longer offers remedial courses on its Twin Cities campus, are exploring new ways to attract students they once might have deemed underprepared.

About one third of more than 40,000 students entering Minnesota State schools take at least one remedial course, with significantly higher rates for low-income and minority students.

A push for reform

In a Normandale classroom recently, writing instructor Melissa Castino Reid huddled with Summer Scholars Academy students to offer feedback on a final assignment: a four-page paper with a strong thesis statement. Nearby, Njia Lawrence-Porter, a Normandale adviser, helped Timmons complete his fall course schedule, grilling him about his plans to juggle school and a 30-hour workweek at a fast-food restaurant.

For years, student advocates and lawmakers have clamored for changes in how the Minnesota State system offers remedial coursework, including an appeal several years ago to eradicate it completely. State legislators, who have also called out high schools for failing to better prepare students, tied a portion of the system’s funding to a 10% reduction in the number of developmental education students and spelled out demands for reform in a 2017 law, setting a 2020 deadline for changes.

In response, staff, faculty and students came up with a road map for an overhaul, with a key goal of ensuring that, with few exceptions, students complete all remedial coursework within an academic year or sooner, said Ron Anderson, the system’s vice chancellor for academic and student affairs.

Normandale once relied solely on a placement test to decide which students need developmental education, a broader term that includes academic advising and other support as well as remedial coursework. Now, it considers several measures, such as high school grades. It also offers more “co-requisites,” pairing remedial and college-credit classes or compressing two remedial classes into one semester.

Normandale was one of six Twin Cities campuses to pilot the donor-funded Summer Scholars in 2017. The early results are promising: Participants have done as well or better in college-level classes compared with peers who took remedial classes. The program saved 2017 and 2018 participants $278,000 in remedial tuition, according to the system.

Remedial education has been in the cross hairs nationally. The massive California State system is making a wholesale break with traditional remedial classes. On a May Education Writers Association panel titled “Killing Remediation Before It Kills College Dreams,” California researchers argued that the data are clear: Except for the most underprepared students, remedial classes do more harm than good.

But faculty and others caution against rushing changes at a time when more first-generation, low-income and minority students are arriving on campus.

Castino Reid, the Normandale instructor, says fast-tracking developmental education works well for most students. But in an “open access” system, which admits anyone with a high school diploma or GED, she says some students still need traditional remedial courses.

“When someone says, ‘Let’s do away with developmental classes completely,’ my heart sinks a little,” Castino Reid said.

Expanding access

Michael Dean, executive director of the community college student advocacy group LeadMN, agrees that some students need the academic support that developmental classes offer. For others, the courses remain “an off-ramp” on the road to a degree. Dean argues that while some Minnesota State campuses have embraced innovation, “others are resistant and hesitant because they want to stay where they are comfortable, which is the status quo.”

Oballa Oballa, president of LeadMN, was overwhelmed by anxiety as he took the Accuplacer test before starting at Riverland Community College in Austin in 2015. Oballa, a refugee from Ethiopia, landed in an English learner course and a remedial math class based on his scores. Financial aid did not apply to those courses, and he took on two part-time jobs to pay for them.

But weeks into that fall semester, Oballa says, his instructor told him his English was too advanced for the class. A faculty member teaching college-level composition agreed to test Oballa, who is starting a bachelor’s program in social work this fall, and welcomed him into the class.

Riverland has since moved to using several measures to assess college readiness. Some college-level courses start weeks after developmental classes, allowing students to switch at the faculty’s recommendation. Anderson says all campuses are on track to meet the Legislature’s 2020 overhaul deadline.

The U’s Twin Cities campus phased out remedial courses over the past decade as its admissions bar rose. Arendale, the retired U professor, says promising students who are underprepared are expected to go to a Minnesota State institution and transfer when ready. But, he says, those transitions are not seamless, slowing students pursuing degrees.

Vice Provost Robert McMaster counters that the U has given much thought in recent years to expanding access. He points to the President’s Emerging Scholars Program, which draws diverse students and offers them a summer bridge experience, peer mentoring and other support.

Some private colleges are also working to draw students who might fall just shy of admissions requirements. Hamline University in St. Paul credits such efforts with its record undergraduate enrollment and a surge in diversity. For instance, about 20 freshmen attend a free summer program to brush up on academic and campus life skills. A new program it introduced last fall offers students guaranteed admission after a year or two on a community college campus.

“Students who in the past would have been turned away are now considered prized students” said Mai Nhia Xiong-Chan, Hamline’s vice president for enrollment management.

In the Minnesota State system, leaders are looking into extending the Summer Scholars program — and growing it beyond the metro.

On Timmons’ last day in the program, Lawrence-Porter, his adviser, cautioned him that once its structure and camaraderie fade, he would be in for an adjustment.

“It takes about a year to get used to doing college,” she said.