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Remedial Nation

As two- and four-year colleges face an onslaught of unprepared students, they are turning to new strategies.
University Business, Dec 2008

IT MIGHT TAKE A REMEDIAL COURSE just to fathom the statistics. At The City University of New York (CUNY) in 2007, 71.4 percent of the first-time freshman class of 9,154 students coming to CUNY’s community colleges required one or more remedial courses. (Although this number is down from 83.9 percent in 2000, say CUNY officials, it still represents just a very small percentage of the students who were enrolled in the system's 23 colleges. —Ed.). In Bloomington, Minn., meanwhile, 75 percent of the incoming freshmen at Normandale Community College took remedial math, and almost 50 percent needed remedial writing.

The latter numbers prompted a recent editorial in the Minneapolis Star Tribune—entitled “Too Many Students Come Unprepared”—which blamed the trend for “running up higher tuition bills and state financial aid costs, and contributing to overcrowding at the state’s largest community college.”

The problem is not confined to two-year colleges, says Normandale’s president, Joseph Opatz, who points out that more than one-third of the 260,000 students in the Minnesota state college system are taking at least one remedial course. “It’s important that we provide that access to students who come to us, but it’s a problem when such a large number of students are in that situation,” he says. In increasingly tough economic times, “students are spending money on what won’t serve them as college level courses.”

Of course, Minnesota is not alone in its remedial travails. Released in September by the advocacy group Strong American Schools, the report “Diploma to Nowhere” ( estimated “conservatively” that 43 percent of students at two-year colleges and almost 30 percent of students enrolled in four-year public institutions nationwide had taken a remedial course. The cost of that remediation? An annual $2.5 billion, the study estimated. That may sound manageable in this age of government bailouts in the hundreds of billions. But nobody is bailing out these institutions. And what may be even more frustrating to college administrators is that 80 percent of the remedial students surveyed maintained at least a 3.0 grade point average during high school.

'If you only address academic issues, you're only getting at 50 percent of what drives a student to be successful.' -Linda Spoelman, Grand Rapids Community College

“We looked at race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic backgrounds, and one of the things I find striking is that the problem exists across the board,” notes Rachel Bird, a senior policy analyst for Strong American Schools. “Remediation affects low-income to middle-income to high-income students. My boss [former Colorado governor Roy Romer] likes to say, ‘Americans think it happens in another part of town or another part of the country.’”

From Kentucky to Michigan, and California to New York, there is an ongoing—and sometimes intense—debate on the role of higher education in getting students ready for college-level studies and the best approaches to take. At Grand Rapids Community College (Mich.) and Eastern Kentucky University, working with such students has become so much a part of the mission that “developmental”—rather than “remedial”—has for years been the official name for the schools’ programs.

“Good education doesn’t look at these students as sick people who need to be remediated,” argues Linda Spoelman, GRCC’s coordinator of developmental education. Of about 5,000 current first-year students, 1,085 have placed into at least one of the college’s special classes, and 753 are taking two or more.

As is typical at many colleges, these noncredit classes run for a semester. Developmental math focuses on basic operations with some pre-algebra. There’s also basic composition and two levels of reading—for students at sixth- to ninth-grade and ninth- to 12th-grade levels.

Spoelman adds that since her school sits in a heartland of displaced workers, a growing number of nontraditional students are coming through her program. “Only 20 percent of jobs can be done now without a postsecondary education, and their skills have gotten rusty,” she explains. “The critical thinking that we ask our students to do is not low-grade. It’s not that they’re unintelligent. It’s that their skills haven’t been developed.”

“I try to work myself out of a job every day,” says Sue Cain, who directs the developmental education program at Eastern Kentucky, where 37 percent of this year’s incoming freshmen arrived unprepared in at least one subject. Cain should be gainfully employed for years to come, however—especially since her school is raising its minimum requirement of 18 on the ACT to 21 in reading and 19 in math next fall. Those who don’t have high enough scores will have to take developmental courses.

EKU offers six of these courses (two levels each in reading, writing, and math), and Cain estimates that a quarter of last year’s senior class had taken at least one of them. “Do these students graduate? Yes,” she emphasizes. “Do they lead successful lives? Absolutely.”

Getting to that point—and making developmental approaches effective—goes well beyond offering courses. “Developmental education done well has good results, and done badly has poor results,” Spoelman says.

“One thing that makes our program work is that students have a limited time to complete these developmental needs,” Cain points out. “They can’t just postpone taking a math course, for example.” At EKU, in fact, students can get a head start on their first year through a monthlong, 8 a.m.-to-4 p.m. First Step to College Success summer program, which provides intensive instruction in their weak subjects, as well as an evening study table and mentoring.

First Step students also can get financial aid, and once they matriculate in the fall, they receive additional tutoring and academic advising. Cain places a premium on assessment. “That’s the service most overlooked,” she notes. “Are your courses really working and are students succeeding? And we need to know what courses these students can succeed in.”

A big part of the developmental work at Grand Rapids Community College involves teaching and learning more than the basic skills. “If you only address academic issues, you’re only getting at 50 percent of what drives a student to be successful,” says Spoelman, who lists goal-setting and help-seeking as equally important attributes. “Developmental education needs to give students some of the softer skills, even getting out of bed and showing up on time. We try to help them with motivational issues and stress. We’re giving them the skills to make academic life a priority.”

The City University of New York is in the ninth year of a program that relegates all remedial programs to its sprawling urban network of community colleges. That mandate suits Borough of Manhattan Community College, CUNY’s largest such college, with 17,000 full-time students (78 percent of whom have remedial needs), says President Antonio Perez, who points to the school’s motto, “Start Here, Go Anywhere.” A decision by CUNY to require higher SAT math scores to qualify for the system’s four-year colleges promises to further test BMCC’s motto and mission next year.

Besides providing semester-long courses, BMCC offers intensive programs during the summer (450 students participated this year) and during winter break as a way of eliminating or trimming back on remedial needs. The summer and winter immersion programs are free, and students taking them can test out of further remedial work.

“We’ve gotten more students who would normally have enrolled in four-year institutions nine years ago, but I think the policy works very well,” Perez says. “It allows the four-year colleges to focus on those who have completed any remediation.”

'The original idea was to target [high school] seniors who needed it, but not every school offers special classes. In reality, we know it's a little more scattershot. We can't control what happens in the high schools.' -Tom Reisz, San Jose State University

Not everyone in the CUNY system agrees with that assessment, including William Crain, a psychology professor at the four-year City College of New York in Harlem for the past 36 years and a vocal opponent of CUNY’s remedial policy for almost a decade.

“When students go to community colleges, statistically they have an 18 to 20 percent less chance of getting a BA than if they started at four-year colleges,” even if they finish high school with similar grades and test scores, Crain argues. “There’s no doubt that the policy started in 1999 disproportionately turned away students of color from the four-year colleges. And in the past few years, it’s become really clear that the numbers of black students have dropped in our top five four-year colleges.”

Crain also recalls that before CUNY’s policy went into effect, students at his college would move through their remedial courses and largely graduate at the same rate as others. Compared to today’s “younger, more test-savvy, and whiter student population,” he adds, “it was more interesting when you had a wider variety of students coming in. We had more diamonds in the rough, who were older, hungrier, and more streetwise, and this was a more dynamic place.”


Other colleges and universities are increasingly considering the source—the high schools and even the middle schools—from which their underprepared students are arriving. That concern was at the heart of the Strong American Schools study.

“We want high school diplomas to have as much meaning as possible,” explains Bird. “Students, their families, and other taxpayers are spending a lot of money for courses that students should have mastered in high school.”

Colleges with developmental and remedial programs report marginal improvements in placement test results, due possibly to the effect on high schools of rising state standards in response to the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act.

“We’ve seen a slight decrease in our remedial numbers as the New York City school system has made improvements,” says BMCC’s Perez. At Eastern Kentucky, Cain has seen a 10-point drop in the percentage of students in her program, aided in part by K-16 councils that have brought school and college educators together to share achievement goals.

Bird suggests that state departments of education could be doing more. “When states look to raise standards, they are not always aligned to what colleges expect of incoming students. There’s a disconnect,” she observes.

Normandale’s Opatz has seen that disconnect firsthand, especially in math. “Math skills for meeting NCLB are not the same as college readiness,” Opatz insists. He suggests realigning state standards more closely to what colleges need of incoming students. He sees an additional problem in the large numbers of students who have not taken math in either their junior or senior years of high school. “There should be some math required in those years so there’s not that long a drought,” he says.

Cain is targeting middle school students, who now can take a college readiness test online, and she is developing pilot programs—including a two-week institute held at Eastern Kentucky this past summer—to strengthen basic math and English skills. “We have to strategically plan to improve education at all levels, ensure that students make successful transitions from one level to the next, and provide interventions for those who don’t,” Cain says.

System leaders at The California State University have been thinking even bigger by assessing almost all of the state’s high school students at the end of their junior year, an approach that Jim Blackburn, director of enrollment management services, hopes will cut back on the almost 30,000 incoming freshmen in need of remediation.

“We were continuing to spend a great deal of time and money on remedial education,” Blackburn says. “One of the problems was that students in secondary schools didn’t know they needed remedial work until they took our placement test in the spring of their senior year.”

So four years ago, under its new Early Assessment Program (EAP), Cal State began collaborating with the California State Board of Education to add a voluntary section of extra questions in reading and math and a 50-minute writing exercise to the standard 11th-grade assessment tests required of all high school students. Those who pass are exempted from CSU placement tests a year later. Last spring CSU assessed the college-readiness of more than 350,000 juniors.

And those who do not pass? They have the chance to improve their performance—with the help of EAP programs coordinated from each of CSU’s campuses—by the time they graduate. “It’s an early signal to students that they need extra help during senior year,” says Tom Reisz, the EAP coordinator at San Jose State University.

Reisz and his fellow coordinators work with local school districts to address the needed skill sets and provide professional development to teachers, usually offered through the state’s county offices of education. The new curriculum includes 14 modules in reading and writing created by a task force of CSU professors and secondary school educators.

The modules, which were developed in-house, can be taught as a yearlong course, spread out over several years, or cherry-picked according to the particular needs of students. The topics are designed to engage those students, from hiring practices at Abercrombie & Fitch to racial profiling, and often they get worked into the general curriculum.

“The original idea was to target seniors who needed it, but not every school offers special classes,” Reisz observes. “In reality, we know it’s a little more scattershot. We can’t control what happens in the high schools.”

“Math has been a little harder to attack,” adds Reisz. Instead of developing courses or modules, EAP personnel are piloting professional development projects at 25 high schools across the state. Reisz says that the program is aiming higher than basic mathematical competency. “We want students to become more creative problem solvers and to solve problems that require numerous skills,” he says.

Blackburn figures that the EAP program will need time to make a difference. “More and more people have participated, and the number of people needing remediation has not changed in a substantial way yet,” he says. “But these things take the better part of a decade.”

For now, existing developmental and remedial programs are charging full speed ahead. Grand Rapids Community College’s Spoelman notes that although 2 percent of higher education budgets go toward programs like hers, “that’s not a lot of resources to put towards educating people who otherwise might be hard-pressed to earn a living wage. The gates of college open to them if they pass these classes, and that opens the door to a career.”

“What alternative do we have?” asks BMCC’s Perez. “Do we want these individuals to be underemployed or unemployed? Are we going to pay more now because students are unprepared, or pay later when they are on the unemployment lines or welfare roles?”

“What would it cost if we don’t have these programs?” adds Eastern Kentucky’s Cain.

Ron Schachter is a Boston-based freelance writer.