The Changing Landscape of Developmental Education Practices: Findings from a National Survey and Interviews with Postsecondary Institutions

By Elizabeth Zachry Rutschow, Maria Scott Cormier, Dominique Dukes, and Diana E. Cruz Zamora | November 2019

Three students study together

Research suggests that far more students are referred to developmental education courses than necessary, and that developmental education presents a barrier to students’ success. As a result, many in the field have called for reforms to developmental education to address these challenges.

This report documents developmental education practices used in broad-access two- and four-year colleges across the country based on a 2016 survey of public two- and four-year colleges and private, nonprofit four-year colleges as well as interviews with institutional and state leaders. It examines practices in assessment, placement, instruction, and support services and finds that many colleges are experimenting with changes to traditional developmental education.

A growing number of public colleges are using measures in addition to standardized tests, such as high school grades, to assess college readiness. Additionally, many colleges are implementing instructional reforms. The most prevalent of these are: compressing developmental courses into shorter periods, offering diverse math courses that align with students’ careers, allowing students to determine their own learning pace, and integrating developmental reading and writing instruction into one course. However, while widespread, these reforms typically reach less than half of students at the colleges.


The Changing Landscape of Developmental Education Practices: Findings from a National Survey and Interviews with Postsecondary Institutions
Executive Summary

Related Blog Post:

Documenting the Spread of Developmental Education Reform

Related Publications:

Early Findings from a National Survey of Developmental Education Practices
How and Why Higher Education Institutions Use Technology in Developmental Education Programming

Press Release:

National Survey of Two- and Four-Year Colleges Shows Rise in Developmental Education Reform, Yet New Practices Typically Reach Less Than Half of Students

Key Findings

Most two-year and four-year public colleges offer developmental courses, though they are more prevalent at two-year colleges. Multi-semester, prerequisite sequences make up a substantial proportion of these courses.

Most colleges use standardized tests to assess students’ college readiness. However, since 2011, there has been a 30-percentage-point increase in the proportion of colleges using multiple measures to assess students’ college readiness. The most popular additional measure used is high school performance.

Many colleges, particularly two-year colleges, are experimenting with different instructional approaches in developmental education; however, these approaches tend to make up less than half of colleges’ overall developmental course offerings.

Understanding Developmental Education Instructional Models

Hover over the cards to reveal the meaning of each term


Traditional multisemester sequence of noncredit developmental education courses


Math course options with content tailored to specific fields of study and degree requirements


Courses in which students work through course content independently, at their own speed


Students are exposed to content outside of class so class time can focus on active learning


Developmental English courses where reading and writing competencies are taught together


College-level courses paired with developmental courses that offer extra learning support

About the study