Curry School of Education Professor to Work on National Review of Programs for Underprepared College Students

November 17, 2006

Nov. 17, 2006 -- The University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education is participating in a new federally funded National Research and Development Center on Postsecondary Education to examine the effectiveness of dual enrollment and learning communities — two educational innovations designed to help students prepare for college. The U.S. Secretary of Education’s Higher Education Commission report recently endorsed dual enrollment, an option many states offer that allows high school students to take college-level courses that count for both high school and college credit.

Assistant professor of education Heather Wathington, who joined the Curry faculty last year after working at the Lumina Foundation, will head U.Va.’s part of the $9.8 million study, which is based at the Community College Research Center of Columbia University’s Teachers College. The study, involving some 10,000 students, will focus on whether these educational options improve academic success and retention for lower-skilled or average-achieving students. With a subcontract of $741,000, Wathington will manage up to five study sites participating in the center’s research. Curry School Dean David Breneman and associate professor Sarah Turner also will be working on the five-year project.

Along with the CCRC and the Curry School, MDRC, an organization that conducts evaluations of policies and programs that affect low-income populations, will contribute to the research, as well as professors from Harvard and Princeton universities.

“We want to understand what innovations and practices work for low-skilled students in giving them better access to postsecondary education … to look and see what actually works,” Wathington said.

Recent research has found that more students are under-prepared for college: a 2002 report from the American Association of Colleges and Universities “Greater Expectations” initiative found that more than half of college students in this country must take remedial course work.
 Learning communities, which a variety of institutions have put in place to help and retain all students, bring together a cohort of students who take courses that are designed to be linked in a cluster or sequence. This integrated educational approach gives students more opportunity to interact with their peers and faculty.

According to a CCRC summary, “The purpose of the proposed study is to test the effectiveness of learning community models in increasing academic achievement, retention in college, degree attainment and other outcomes for students who enter college at a remedial level. It is hypothesized that students in learning communities will develop closer ties with their peers and faculty members and gain greater mastery over subject matter than they will in a more conventional college program, resulting in higher academic achievement and persistence.”

Wathington added that one aim of the study is to compare these activities — learning communities and dual enrollment programs which are “costly to administer”  — to the status quo at different schools around the country, specifically in New York, central Arkansas and Florida.
Along with funding the National Research and Development Center on Postsecondary Education, the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences awarded funds to three other new national education centers this summer, including the National Center for Research on Early Childhood Education led by U.Va. education professor Robert Pianta.