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Study Shows Students' Troubles in Reaching "Gatekeeper Courses"

December 3, 2009

by Agnes Jasinski

A new study surveying community college students in Virginia shows that more attention should be paid by those schools, and perhaps at schools across the country, in making sure students are getting the proper guidance when making course decisions and are being placed in the appropriate classrooms.

The study, from the Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College, tracked more than 24,000 students entering Virginia's community colleges in 2004. It found that most of those students never completed, or even reached, the important "gatekeeper courses" necessary to complete most fields of study. Gatekeeper courses are typically prerequisites that students must take - and pass - before moving on to more advanced courses that may have more to do with their intended degrees. These are considered the fundamental college courses, often in subjects like math and English, that often make up general education requirements at four-year institutions. Most of those students surveyed never made it past the remedial courses they were placed in when their academic records suggested core courses would be too intense for their first semesters on campus.

Academic credit is usually not awarded for remedial coursework. A long-standing criticism of remedial courses has been that the classes do little in the way of preparing students for college-level work. The study found mixed results on the issue. Students who were placed in remedial courses and completed them did just as well in the gatekeeper courses as those who didn’t need remediation, but the researchers suggest getting rid of remedial courses would be a mistake. Instead, students should take remedial courses at the same time as gatekeeper courses, to use what they learn in remediation in courses that may be more difficult for them.

So what kind of supports do community college students across the country need in place? Schools should consider having additional supports for those targeted for remediation. While those students may need more help in terms of developmental coursework, they should also be introduced to college-level coursework as soon as possible, as the study found that students who needed multiple remedial courses rarely reached the gatekeeper courses.

Schools should also maintain the financial supports many community college students rely on to attend those institutions. The new NBC comedy "Community" plays with the idea of a stereotypical community college and stereotypical community college population, but the reasons college-bound students choose two-year schools are much more complex, and often not as funny, than the show allows. Most often, cost considerations and personal responsibilities come into play when students are considering alternatives to four-year schools in their college search. If you're planning on attending a community college for your post-secondary education, make sure you and your study skills are prepared for the rigors of a college education just like any traditional four-year student so that you're successful, and that you know of the financial aid options available to you to pay for that education.


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