Corequisite Support as “Settled Law”: A Q&A with Brandon Protas of Complete College America

A teacher helping two college students

Complete College America (CCA) has long been a leading voice in the push for colleges to adopt corequisite support, arguing that the evidence that coreq helps students was strong even when cautious researchers wanted to see more.

Brandon Protas, CCA’s assistant vice president for alliance engagement, says coreq is now “settled law,” and though we might want to continue researching the most effective coreq models, the main need now is for groups like his to convene higher ed leaders to more systematically implement the reform. Protas recently spoke with CAPR about the state of the research and CCA’s role in dev ed reform. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Corequisite remediation has been spreading, and there’s both more research evidence behind it and more rigorous research evidence. So what is the current landscape of corequisite remediation?

Tyton Partners did a national survey of developmental education reform in 2019 that looked at the national landscape. They found that 40% of survey respondents reported that their institutions were not systematically implementing dev ed reforms, and, of the 60% that were implementing the reforms, about another 24% said they were still doing multi-semester prerequisite remedial courses. So, while we advocate for corequisite support to be the norm, we know that many colleges and universities have not made it a norm. 

It takes a policy to lay out a clear, unambiguous vision of what those expectations are. But it also takes technical assistance, professional development, and faculty and staff leadership for real implementation. If you’re going to do it fully, it’s a fundamental shift in how colleges see and serve students because you’re moving from a deficit-based approach, which requires students to show everything they know before they have access to a college course, to an asset-based approach, which holds that students are coming with knowledge that can be activated, that can be contextualized, that can be added to, when they go directly into a college course.

What else from your perspective do we need to know about coreqs? What kind of research would you like to see? 

When Complete College America started over a decade ago with the Bridge to Nowhere, it was a clarion call. It caused quite a stir as it led the national discussion about dev ed in a new direction. I think there was a misunderstanding that we were attacking developmental educators, and that’s not what we were doing—we were questioning the systems and the structures that hurt students. But it was hard for people because many of them had done it this way for years. 

We make the case that coreq support is settled law in our recent publication, No Room for Doubt. There’s enough research out there that shows corequisite support works better for students, whether it’s immediate outcomes in the college-level English and math courses or whether it’s increased graduation rates. We know it’s an equity strategy because there are racialized outcomes due to placement tests that disproportionately put BIPOC students in remedial courses. We released another publication called Corequisite Works that showcased the University System of Georgia and over two dozen institutions that effectively eliminated institutional performance gaps for Latinx, Black, Pell, and first-generation students. So, while I think there are other areas of research to look at some of the nuanced pieces of it—how to tweak a coreq model, what’s the role of culturally relevant pedagogy, specific models of credit hours, if it’s the same instructor or cohort versus comingled students—overall, there’s no question that corequisite works and should be the norm. 

But there’s a group that is not succeeding. What do we need to know about them? What do we do next for them?

That’s a great question. Nobody is saying that corequisite is going to lead to a 100% pass rate. And it would be folly to say that any student success program is going to guarantee you a 100% pass rate. But we have seen a doubling and tripling of pass rates when coreq models replaces long sequences of prerequisite remediation. We’ve known anecdotally—and now there’s research behind it that Florence Ran and others did on corequisites and reading through Strong Start to Finish—that the students who are not successful in a corequisite are typically failing most, if not all, of their other courses. That says it’s not the corequisite model that’s not working. But there are other things going on. We always think that coreq should be paired with other student success initiatives, but we know that for some students there are larger issues. That’s a different problem that we need to solve for.

You mentioned that some colleges have been able to close gaps. But there are still issues with disparities in outcomes by race and ethnicity, right?

The University System of Georgia has more than two dozen institutions that were able to eliminate institutional performance gaps in college-level English and math pass rates through coreq at scale. I will say, though, when I talk about corequisite, I talk about it in multiple ways. So, there are the structural reforms of how the courses are organized, moving away from the multiple semesters of prerequisite remediation. But it’s also a different pedagogy. You are not compressing the material from three courses and putting it into one and just teaching faster. So, we need to look at what’s going on inside the classroom. 

One part of it is the metacognition: How do you understand yourself as a learner and the learning process? How do you evaluate and connect what you’re doing in this course to your academic and career goals? Active learning strategies and culturally relevant practices also have to be in there, getting students up and moving around, working with different peers, seeing themselves as learners and leaders in the class—but also validating who they are. Particularly for racially minoritized students, there can be a lot of bias coming from outside and stereotype threat. So, we need to look at the content and beyond the content to really have an impact we want.

What are the kinds of things that policymakers and practitioners need to improve the implementation of coreq? How do we share the research evidence to inform change? 

Complete College America is a national nonprofit policy and advocacy organization. We talk about the intersection of policy, practice, and perspective. Perspective is understanding the need for change. It’s creating that sense of urgency. It’s getting the right people together at the right time to have the right conversations. I really encourage both the policymakers and the practitioners to work together to come up with that common vision and allow time for that change process. But we really know that corequisite works and should be the norm if we’re going to increase success rates in those initial college English and math gateway courses, if we want to build momentum for students. 

Brandon Protas is the assistant vice president for alliance engagement at Complete College America.