John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Reducing Failure Rates in Gateway Courses: All Aspirational Goals for Improving Student Success Depend on This!

July 3, 2014huhnInsights0

John N. Gardner
President

I have written before about this, but like the other most important things in life and career, some things can’t be said too often. I am referring to the deplorable and unacceptable failure rates in gateway courses. These courses are inflicting so many casualties in terms of dashed student hopes and dreams, student attrition, defaults on student loans, and overall declining performance as a national higher education system, that this issue must be taken more seriously.

In my four decades plus career I have been a relentless champion for institutions taking more seriously what I have been calling “the first-year experience.” And institutions, thousands of them, have responded by making the first year a much higher priority. As testimony to these efforts, retention/attrition rates have remained relatively flat, which considering the changing characteristics of today’s college students, whom we would expect to be persisting at lower levels, is quite remarkable.

From my vantage point though, the majority of our efforts have been nibbling around the edges of student success. Disproportionately we have been focusing on the elements of the first year more easily subject to modification and improvement, especially those less under the direct control of faculty: orientation, placement, advisement registration, counseling, residence life, career planning, student activities, academic/learning support, etc. We have also made many inroads in more academically focused initiatives particular in such interventions as first-year seminars, learning communities, Supplemental Instruction and other High Impact Practices. But for a myriad of reasons, we have been more reluctant to venture into what I have come recently to call “the real first-year experience”, gateway courses. I will suggest in a later posting what are some of the reasons for this reluctance to “go there.” But for this posting I want to share some illustrations of the extent of the problem and therefore why we must go there.

What I am going to share is drawn from a national pilot project organized by the non-profit organization of which I am a part, the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education. This project is designated as “G2C, Gateways to Completion.” For the academic year 2013-14 we have had 13 post-secondary institutions begin this three-year pilot. I will also write more in a subsequent blog about the components of this project. My colleague, Dr. Drew Koch, the Executive Vice President of the Institute, heads our work. Our thirteen pilot institutions include three community colleges, three research universities, five regional comprehensive public colleges and universities, and two FOR-profit, largely or totally on line institutions.

One of the many components of the G2C process is the use of a very sophisticated software platform that enables participating institutions to much better understand the scope of the gateway course success challenges, and to then make better informed, data driven decisions about which courses most need our attention and intervention. To illustrate the scope of this academic underperformance, the extent of societal unfairness involved, and the longer-term impact of gateway course performance on subsequent educational and human outcomes I will present the following data that Dr. Koch has compiled from our G2C work to date:

1)    Examples of Average DFWI Rates for G2C Institutions

2)    Examples of DFWI Rates for Selected G2C Institutions Subpopulations

3)    DFWI Rate Examples Correlated with Retention Outcomes for Various G2C Institutions

 Table 1. Examples of Average DFWI Rates for G2C Institutions

This table provides data for the courses that two or more G2C institutions selected to work on as part of the G2C process. Column A shows the courses that G2C institutions selected after completing their analysis of data in the G2C gateway course analytics platform. Column B. shows the number of institutions working on this course as part of G2C, and Column C shows the average DFWI rate for the G2C institutions that chose to work on the course. For example, Accounting (the first courses in Column A) is being considered by 2 G2C institutions (see Column B) with an average DFWI rate of 43.4% across the institutions working on the course (see Column C).

Column A.
Course

Column B.
Number of Institutions Working on Course

Column C.
Average DFWI Rate for All Students

Accounting

2

43.4%

Biology

8

30.8%

Chemistry

4

31.9%

English – College Level

6

30.3%

History

6

30.3%

Math – College Level

10

35.3%

Math – Developmental

3

49.4%

Psychology

5

30.0%


Table 2. Examples of DFWI Rates for Selected G2C Institutions’ Subpopulations

This table shows some examples of DFWI rates for various demographic subpopulations for the same courses shown in Table 1. It merits pointing out that the G2C software platform allows institutions to see DFWI rate outcomes for many different subpopulations – not just the ones shown here on Table 2. The ability to see breakouts of DFWI rates for subpopulations allows institutions to dig deeper into what is going on in each course. For example, for Accounting (Column A), African American, Hispanic / Latino, and First Generation Students (Column B) respectively have DFWI rates in the course of 62.0, 69.5, and 48.2% (Column C).

Column A.
Course
Column B.
Subpopulation

Column C.
Average DFWI Rate for Subpopulation

Accounting African American

62.0%

Hispanic / Latino

69.5%

First Generation

48.2%

Biology African American

48.0%

Pell Eligible

38.0%

Chemistry Hispanic / Latino

45.0%

Native American

79.2%

English – College Level African American

43.2%

Native American

40.8%

History African American

49.0%

Pell Eligible

38.2%

Math – College Level African American

49.1%

Native American

48.3%

Pell Eligible

39.4%

Math – Developmental African American

60.0%

Native American

73.1%

Psychology African American

44.5%

Native American

52.1%

Table 3. DFWI Rate Examples Correlated with Retention Outcomes for Various G2C Institutions

This table provides several institution-specific examples of how rates of D, F, W and I grades correlate with attrition (lack of retention). We have removed institutional course numbers and modified course titles to protect institutional identities – but the data is accurate. For example, when looking at the first course on the table – Accounting I found in Column A below – one finds a DFWI rate of 54.0% (see Column B). This DFWI rate is the average rate for all students in the course at the institution – whether they were retained or not. In Column C, one sees that students who were not retained at the institution but who were eligible to return had an 81.6% DFWI rate in Accounting I. In other words, more than 4 out of 5 students who took Accounting I and who could have come back a year later but chose not to do so earned a D, F, W or I grade in Accounting I. Column D shows that all of the students who were dismissed from the institution for academic reasons who took Accounting I had a D, F, W or I grade in the course.

Column A.
Course Examples from Individual G2C Institutions

Column B. Average DFWI Rate

Column C.
DFWI Rate for
Non-Retained Eligible-to-Return Students

Column D.
DFWI Rate
for Academic Dismissal Students

Accounting I

54.0%

81.6%

100%

Foundations of Biology

18.9%

55.0%

92.9%

General Chemistry I

36.3%

73.9%

82.4%

Writing and Rhetoric I

10.6%

25.8%

61.4%

Survey of American History

26.8%

67.2%

100%

College Algebra

59.7%

73.5%

89.6%

Beginning Algebra (Remedial)

24.4%

65.1%

100%

Introduction to Psychology

28.1%

46.1%

83.7%

Mean of Average Rates

32.4%

61.0%

88.8%

So, dear readers, my colleague Dr. Koch and I conclude the following from the above:

  1. Clearly (and sadly), when it comes to success in gateways courses, race, socioeconomic standing, and first-generation status are among the greatest predictors of failure.
  2. Simply stated, lack of success in gateway courses is directly correlated with substantially higher rates of attrition.
  3. These findings suggest we are not paying nearly enough attention to the importance of gateway course performance rates.

I will be writing in the near future about why we tolerate these deplorable performance rates; about possible explanatory variables; and what our G2C, Gateways to Completion process is attempting to do about these challenges.

 

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