Gateway Courses: What Are They and How Can We Help Students Succeed in Them?

Written by: Christie Forgette

Gateway courses, the first credit-bearing classes students take on the path to their major or degree, should provide foundational knowledge and skills that students need to succeed. However, some faculty and institutions have an unfortunate tendency to treat them as “weed-out” courses to screen students they deem not “college ready.” As a result, gateway courses have high DFW rates that disproportionately impact minoritized, low-income, and first-generation students. 

But Dr. Valerie Jones, president of Lone Star College-CyFair, says the “weed out” approach to gateway courses needs to change. “We have to be honest about the history of higher education and the role gateway courses have played in making many students feel unworthy,” she says. 

“We need to completely invert that concept and recreate gateway courses as a framework affirming students are meant to be here. They should be about engagement and get students excited about the work they're going to do.”

Redefining gateway courses

Jones says an engagement approach to gateway courses is especially important for students at community colleges like the Lone Star College-CyFair, which serves over 22,000 students and is part of the eight-campus Lone Star College system in Houston. Her institution is rethinking gateway courses in a way that emphasizes a culture of student success.

“One part of reconceptualizing gateway courses is looking at the resources and the support that we've put in the hands of faculty who teach those courses because they create personal connections and relationships with our students,” says Jones.

Faculty teaching foundational courses need professional support to maintain the energy and expertise required for building relationships and rethinking gateway course design.  Just as faculty set a high bar for student success, they should expect and receive a high level of support from administrators.

Lone Star College-CyFair is also reworking the sequencing and positioning of gateway courses. The college is exploring ways to schedule courses so that they complement one another, offering students opportunities to be both challenged and set up for success.

For example, if a student loves math but is less confident about writing, the college might place that student in both of those courses in the same semester to act as counterbalances, providing opportunities for both growth and affirmation for the student.

Related reading: 15 Resources on Equity-Centered Faculty Development to Support Implementing Courseware

Gateway courses and marginalized students

Jones is paying particular attention to the progress of racially and ethnically minoritized students in gateway courses. She notes that aggregated data can be misleading.

“When you disaggregate the data and look at the intersection of race, ethnicity, and gender, you start to see a really disparate impact,” Jones explains. 

By examining the data in this way, Lone Star College-CyFair has recognized areas where support for minoritized populations was lacking. They have begun to target resources to gateway courses and connect students to those resources in dynamic ways. Jones characterizes those changes as making the institution “student ready.”

To combat feelings of disconnection that first-year students may have, Lone Star College-CyFair has created an initiative called iBelong that is working to build an environment where all students feel welcome.

“Personal relationships are the single most important factor in a student’s ability to be successful,” Dr. Jones notes. “Whether it's in the realm of technology for online students or in the face-to-face environment, that sense of belonging is what we're here to create.”

Partnership between technology and gateway courses

The accelerated pace of technology adoption during COVID primed both faculty and students for wider possibilities with gateway courses. It can engage students outside of class time and faculty office hours, for example, and it can be customized to meet students’ needs, fill in gaps, and accelerate when students are ready. It can also incorporate gamification and more varied media than a traditional textbook.

Bandwidth, though, especially in low-income areas, remains a concern. Jones cautions that we must be attentive to the digital divide. She believes institutions will have to collaborate with local partners to ensure internet access. Institutions must also be prepared with technology support so students are able to access course work.

Gateway courses as launchpads for success

Jones sees a positive trend in colleges rethinking gateway courses. She recognizes a connection between students’ success in those courses and their overall success in college.

“Students who survive their first year are rocking and rolling toward completion,” Jones notes. “Those students came through our doors with enthusiasm and optimism in their ability to reach their dreams. We need to recognize how many students don’t survive us and that first experience.”

Reconceiving gateway courses takes intentionality and a willingness to rework processes and practices so they encourage and retain marginalized students. Institutions must reflect, explore, and engage with students in ways that allow them to be honest. Then colleges can reinvent and re-energize in ways that prioritize that first semester. 

“Gateway courses are paramount to affirming our students,” Dr. Jones explains. “Students must know that gateway courses are going to be hard, and their brains are going to just be on fire sometimes, but that's okay. They will survive and thrive.”

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