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The Math of College Success

Raising the Bar | From the Executive Director | November 2017


By: Jeff Kutash, Executive Director

Have you heard of developmental education? I hadn’t until I started working more closely with community colleges about a decade ago. Let me explain. At most community colleges in the country, and here in Nebraska, incoming students take a placement test to see if they are ready for college level work. If they pass that test, they move into credit-bearing courses. If they don’t pass that test, they are required to take developmental education classes. They pay for those classes, but they don’t count toward their degree.

So why is that a big deal? Well, according to the Community College Research Center, over 60% of community college students nationally wind up in these remedial courses, and of those who do, less than 1 in 4 will ever go on to complete their degree. Those are national figures, but locally, this issue affects far too many students in Nebraska – particularly in math. While a statewide figure doesn’t exist, Nebraska community colleges report that 25-70% of their incoming students need developmental math. Thankfully, our community colleges are working hard to address this issue, and are doing so increasingly in partnership with high schools.

Why does this problem exist in the first place?

As you’ll see below, the main cause is a disconnect between our K-12 and community college systems.

  • Nebraska only requires high school students to take math for 3-years. So students “lose” some of their math skills after sitting out of math for a year or more before going to college.
  • Math standards are not aligned between K-12 and community colleges. So even a student who passes math in high school and graduates, may test into developmental math in college.
  • College math requirements and assessments vary across institutions and even when they use the same assessment, they may set different cutoff scores for “remedial” vs. “college‑ready”.
  • Not enough data sharing occurs between K-12 and community colleges. K-12 rarely knows how its students perform after they transition to college. Without a feedback loop, it is difficult to develop interventions to ensure students are prepared.

Are there solutions?

Community colleges across the country, and here in Nebraska, are working hard to improve the quality of developmental education. They are delivering it in modules, co-registering students in developmental courses alongside credit-bearing courses, utilizing hybrid learning models (teachers + technology), and providing additional coaching and tutoring to students. That’s good work, but in my opinion, the best answer is to address this problem before kids get to college so that they never get placed into development education in the first place.

To that end, in November of 2016, PKF invited Warren Nichols, Vice-Chancellor for Tennessee’s Community Colleges, to present his system’s student success strategies to the Nebraska Community College Association at their annual meeting. One of the interventions he shared was the Tennessee SAILS Program (Seamless Alignment and Integrated Learning Support), the goal of which is to reduce the number of students needing to take non-credit bearing developmental math courses at community college. Tennessee implemented this highly cost-effective program statewide in 2014-15 under the leadership of the Governor and state funding pays for the cost of the program. Here’s a basic schematic for how it works:

The added benefit of this program is that it utilizes the same on-line math curriculum modules being used at the community colleges and it trains and makes use of current high school teachers to facilitate and support students in using the math modules. In just a few short years, the program has already resulted in a 16% decrease in the number of students needing to take developmental math after transitioning to community college.

Have we taken action?

I am happy to report that the Chief Academic Officers of our six community colleges have been working together to pilot a similar program to SAILS in Nebraska. Over the summer, math faculty from each college began meeting to work on the design of the curriculum and program, as well as to identify school districts to pilot the program in their respective regions. Metropolitan Community College has already begun to pilot the curriculum with 6 school districts in greater Omaha and pilots in the remaining five community college regions will begin in the Fall of 2018. As part of the pilot, the six community colleges will share lessons learned and conduct an evaluation.

Looking forward, we are excited about this emerging partnership between K-12 and community colleges on math. We believe it holds great promise in helping a large number of students succeed in higher education and be more prepared for the workforce. So while this effort is in early stages, we will be keeping a close eye on it to see if it delivers the kinds of results that warrant scaling the program to all students who need it.