Why Don’t We Talk About Race in Developmental Education?

by Dr. Erin Doran / Aug 29, 2018

Given that the number of Latinx students enrolled in higher education has more than doubled between 2000 and 2016 (NCES, 2016), the growing presence of this group presents a large opportunity and challenge for postsecondary institutions. This increase is an achievement for educators and advocates across the P-20 educational pipeline who fought for better access to higher education for this population.

One “clog” in the educational pipeline usually identified as a barrier to all students’ persistence and completion is developmental education. Broadly defined as the in- and out-of-class services provided to students who are identified as academically underprepared by their institutions (Bailey, Jeong, & Cho, 2010), nearly 60% of all students enrolled at a public, two-year institution took a course in developmental math (Chen & Simone, 2016), making it the most popular subject area of enrolled students at this level. Across subject areas, Latinx students on average enrolled in four developmental courses, which was higher than the nearly three-student average across all racial/ethnic groups (Chen & Simone, 2016). The scope of developmental education cannot be understated, especially given that the more developmental courses a student takes, the less likely they are to complete a degree or certificate program (Adelman, 1999; Solórzano, Acevedo-Gil, & Santos, 2013).

The research on Latinx students in developmental education across all content areas is woefully thin. Various studies have pointed out the overrepresentation of these students in developmental education (e.g., Bahr, 2010; Melguizo, Hagedorn, & Cypers, 2008). Others have done more to better contextualize the factors that led to students’ placement into developmental courses or predict their successful move to college-level coursework (e.g., Crisp & Nora, 2010; Crisp, Salis Reyes, & Doran, 2017; Nora & Crisp, 2012). The lack of research on developmental math is particularly striking considering the large body of research calling for increased representation of Latinx students and graduates in STEM fields.

Other than pointing out the disproportionate presence of Latinx students in developmental education, previous research has failed to explore the racialized experience in these courses. This failure uncovers two major flaws in our current understanding of how to serve Latinx students in this context. First and perhaps most importantly, student voices are largely missing from empirical articles. Arguably one of the best articles on Latinx students in developmental education is this article from 2015 that actually features the voices of students placed in these courses and how these courses validate or invalidate their experiences and academic goals. As researchers, we have failed to learn from our students.

Speaking of validation, we also know very little of how experiences in developmental education connect with students’ backgrounds and identities. Rendón’s (1994) classic study taught us that minoritized students can be transformed into capable, confident learners when they experience positive, validating moments both in and out of the classroom. Yet we know little about what that looks like for the estimated 50% of Latinx students who enroll in community colleges each year and are assigned to a developmental math course (Data Dashboard, n.d.).

One model community college currently leading the effort to validate experiences for Latinx students in developmental math is Austin Community College (ACC). Through its involvement with the Ascender program, a program overseen by the nonprofit Catch the Next Inc. in Texas, ACC has combined developmental math into a learning community for racially minoritized students, many of whom are Latinx. In this community, students take an accelerated developmental course alongside a special section of College Algebra, which condenses their time spent in developmental coursework and gives them access to college-level courses. Students also enroll in special sections of EDUC 1300, Effective Learning: Strategies for Student Success.

The faculty who teach in this program receive special training on teaching with validation theory in mind. Additionally, the program combines current trends in developmental education policy (e.g., a co-requisite model) with various best practices for serving community college students including collaborative learning, which helps develop a sense of community (or familia, as the model recommends) among students in the classroom and gives them a sense that they are capable of much more than they may think.

In June I spoke with an ACC Ascender student, a Latina who told me she was a low-income, first-generation college student. She was clear that enrolling at ACC was a whole new world for both her and her immigrant parents. Last September, this student brought her parents to Noche de Familia (Family Night), an Ascender event that invites guests to campus so they can learn more about students’ college experiences. This student beamed with pride as she talked to me about her father winning the Lotería (Mexican bingo) and his excitement because “he had never won anything before.” What was clear through this story was that thanks to this event, this particular student’s family would double down on their investment in their daughter’s education because the members were welcomed to campus by college instructors and advisers who had similarly invested in her success.

There are plenty of criticisms about the effectiveness of developmental education and its place in postsecondary education more broadly (e.g., Complete College America’s  white paper). However, I believe that the key to helping students, especially racially minoritized students, through developmental education (particularly in mathematics) requires a deeper understanding of their backgrounds and cultures, a fathoming on to connect with them, and a knowledge of teaching practices that instill in them the confidence that they are capable of being successful college graduates.


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  • Bahr, P.R. (2010). Preparing the underprepared: An analysis of racial disparities in postsecondary mathematics remediation. Journal of Higher Education, 81(2), 209-237. doi: 10.1353/jhe.0.0086.
  • Bailey, T., Jeong, D.W., & Cho, S. (2010). Referral, enrollment, and completion in developmental education sequences in community colleges. Economics of Education Review, 29(2), 255-270. doi: 10.1016/j.econedurev.2009.09.002
  • Chen, X., & Simone, S. (2016). Remedial coursetaoking at U.S. public 2-year and 4-year institutions: Scope, experiences, and outcomes. Statistical analysis report. NCES 2016-405. National Center for Education Statistics.
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  • Data Dashboard. (n.d.). Complete College America. 
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  • Nora, A., & Crisp, G. (2012). Hispanic student participating and success in developmental education [White paper]. San Antonio, TX:  Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities.
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  • Solórzano, D.G., Acevedo-Gil, N., & Santos, R.E. (2013). Latina/o community college students:  Understanding the barriers of developmental education [Policy Report no. 10]. Los Angeles, CA: UC/ACCORD and PATHWAYS to Postsecondary Success.