By now the Florida Senate Bill 1720 (SB 1720) is well-known amongst community college leaders. In 2013, the bill made major changes to the way the state’s 28 two-year colleges could assess incoming students, place them into developmental courses, and teach content in developmental classrooms. Before the changes went into effect, experts from within and outside of Florida warned of what would happen when mandatory remediation was eliminated, the element of the bill that received the most attention. However, SB 1720 has several stipulations that changed the way Florida students behave and create new pressures, questions, and challenges for college leaders across the country.
When Florida students decided to skip developmental education, they shed light onto three areas that require greater attention to improve student outcomes nationwide.
1. Skipping remediation decreases college-level course enrollment
The ability of Florida students to skip developmental work and enroll directly into a college-level course has caused a flurry of questions: Would students placing into developmental courses skip ahead to the college-level? If so, how would these students fare in college-level math or English courses? Researchers at Florida State University’s Center for Postsecondary Success (CPS) found answers to these questions (at Miami Dade College, enrollment in developmental math classes decreased by 42% and pass rates declined from 55.7% to 46.8% in the same time period), and uncovered an even more disturbing enrollment trend. Among students recommended to take developmental education courses in the fall 2014 data at two Florida colleges immediately after SB 1720 went into effect, nearly half not only opted out of remediation—they opted out of taking math, reading, or writing courses in the first semester altogether. This trend is most prevalent among students who were advised to take developmental reading; 56.2% did not enroll in a college-level reading or English course.
Researchers from CPS asked students to identify the major factors they considered when making their enrollment decisions and found that future career goals and time-to-degree were the most important factors. This seems counterintuitive when student success data shows a clear link between satisfactory completion of key foundational courses and graduation—why would a student opt out of English and math courses if they want to succeed in their careers? It seems that students who care deeply about their career goals want to take courses and complete job-relevant training as quickly as possible. If a student feels that basic math or college-level algebra will not help them get a job or promotion quickly, they will opt for more applied courses instead.
This shows a clear need to link basic foundational skills across math, reading, and writing with students’ career goals. Washington State has done a good job with this through the I-BEST program, but more can be done to bring this message to a larger population of students during registration. Students should recognize how skills across these core disciplines apply to their selected program or major; in that way, math, reading and writing aren’t hurdles to their goals, but necessary foundations for success in their chosen field.
2. Holistic advising techniques essential for admissions counseling
SB 1720 also requires Florida’s colleges to offer admissions counseling to all incoming first-time-in-college (FTIC) students. In their research, CPS found that the vast majority of the state’s colleges are using transcripts, checklists, individual education plans, and degree plans to inform the conversations. These tools are crucial for advisors to have at their disposal when first interacting with new students—many advisors we’ve interviewed in our own research have expressed how beneficial it can be to provide students with these standard tools at intake.
However, fewer Florida colleges use more intrusive advising techniques or more holistic sources of information to guide students at intake, such as considering non-cognitive factors or students’ out-of-school responsibilities to work or family. These strategies are notoriously difficult to get right, but several colleges are moving forward by learning as much about students as they can at intake.
The benefit of using more intrusive advising techniques during intake admissions counseling is twofold: first, intrusive advising that measures non-cognitive factors enables a more personalized assessment of students’ specific needs and areas for further development. Second, holistic advising that incorporates a discussion of students’ out-of-school responsibilities can be more sensitive to changes in students’ lives. If a student suddenly takes on an extra shift at their part-time retail job, or moves to a new apartment, an advisor should know how these changes may impact academics. Without this knowledge, advisors can’t help students adapt to life changes, and their counseling support can quickly become irrelevant to students’ real life circumstances.
3. Optimizing advising may mean empowering student self-service
Unsurprisingly, the requirement that all incoming FTIC students complete admissions counseling led a surge in demand for advising appointments. Furthermore, each appointment is necessarily longer to accommodate a more substantive counseling conversation with each new student around their Postsecondary Education Readiness Test (PERT) scores, high school transcripts, chosen meta-major, and other factors. Florida’s two-year colleges are undoubtedly searching for ways to meet these new demands, either by hiring more advisors or improving the quality of advising conversations to cover essential topics in a short amount of time—and in some cases, doing both.
There are two questions college leaders in Florida and across the country should ask themselves when faced with increasing advising demands, regardless of whether they are brought about by legislative bills or natural environmental shifts: First, how can you empower students to start exploring important advising topics on their own before speaking with a professional? Self-service teaches new students to navigate college and eliminates the need for advisors to review basic information at every appointment. The second major question is about empowering advisors: What information or tool can you provide to full-time and faculty advisors so they can quickly diagnose students’ greatest challenges and help students navigate these challenges to reach success?
Florida often leads the rest of the country in terms of innovation in the two-year sector. So perhaps an optimistic interpretation of SB 1720 and the early data from CPS is that the bill will push Florida’s college leaders to once again innovate and lead the charge nationwide. There are clearly major challenges the bill has created in Florida—students opting out of math and English courses, static counseling tools, and overwhelmed advisors—but our view is that these early struggles are clear opportunities for college leaders from Florida and beyond to rethink current practice and introduce measures to improve student success.