Not ready for college-level work

This article comes from The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. It is reprinted with permission.

The vast majority of public two- and four-year colleges report enrolling students – more than half a million of them – who are not ready for college-level work, a Hechinger Report investigation of 44 states has found.

The numbers reveal a glaring gap in the nation’s education system: A high school diploma, no matter how recently earned, doesn’t guarantee that students are prepared for college courses. Higher education institutions across the country are forced to spend time, money and energy to solve this disconnect. They must determine who’s not ready for college and attempt to get those students up to speed as quickly as possible, or risk losing them altogether.

Most schools place students in what are called remedial courses in math or English before they can move on to a full load of college-level, credit-bearing courses – a process that is a financial drain on not only students, but also colleges and taxpayers, costing up to an estimated $7 billion a year.

A look at the numbers

Data from 911 two- and four-year colleges revealed that 96 percent of schools enrolled students who required remediation in the 2014-15 academic year, the most comprehensive recent numbers. At least 209 schools placed more than half of incoming students in at least one remedial course.

At least 569,751 students were enrolled in remedial classes that year. The true total is likely much higher because of inconsistencies in the way states track this data that may not capture adults returning to school or part-time students.

Some states report numbers for the entire student body, while others limit their data to incoming students. Some states also did not provide specific student enrollment numbers at all, did not report it for all their schools or did not have data from that year available.

The rates are “so high that there’s no question students are getting out of high school without the skills they need to succeed in college,” said Alex Mayer, a senior research associate at MRDC, an education and social policy research organization. “The other side of it is these students are not getting out of college, for the most part.”

Indeed, research has shown that students who enroll in these remedial courses often never even make it into the classes that will count toward a degree. A similarly wide-ranging 2012 report by Complete College America determined that nearly half of entering students at two-year schools and a fifth at four-year schools were placed in remedial classes in the fall of 2006. Nearly 40 percent of students at two-year schools and a quarter of those at four-year schools failed to complete their remedial classes, that report found.

Testing into remediation

Different states use different cutoff scores to determine who must take these classes, which makes remediation-rate comparisons difficult and, critics say, remedial placement somewhat arbitrary. But despite the difficulty of comparison, many states have strikingly high remediation rates in their public colleges and universities.

One of those is Maryland. At many public schools in the state, it’s uncommon for an incoming student not to be placed in remedial education. At Baltimore City Community College (BCCC), for instance, in the fall of 2015, only 13 percent of students were deemed ready to start on college-level math and English courses right away, according to data provided by the school.

All BCCC students must take a test in math and English called the Accuplacer upon enrolling. The standardized test is one of two used by most higher education institutions to determine students’ readiness. (Some schools use high school GPA or scores on the SAT or ACT.)

At BCCC, and many other institutions, students are placed into one of three levels of remedial courses based on their test scores. (Starting in the summer of 2017, BCCC will only have two levels of remedial math.) A student at the bottom level in math might need help with basic arithmetic. A student who places into the lowest-level English course might still struggle with something as elementary as subject-verb agreement, said Melvin Brooks, associate dean of English, Humanities, Visual and Performing Arts at BCCC.

“Some of them are so deficient, to try to include them in a credit-bearing course without that foundation would be a disservice,” he said, adding that the professor and other students would also be held back by a classmate so ill equipped to keep up.

Helping those who need it

Many college administrators also make an ethical argument for enrolling students who need remediation: It’s the college’s job to help make up for circumstances that have left students unprepared, not to punish them.

“College education has such a transformative power,” Moore said. “To simply tell people you’re not going to college because you qualify for remedial education, I think, would be wrong. That sort of places the blame on the student.”

Instead, many schools across the country are focusing on getting students ready for college-level work as efficiently as possible.

Some colleges, including BCCC, are partnering with local school districts to push remediation into high schools. BCCC has also pared down some of its remedial courses from 16 weeks to 12 or eight. They’re experimenting with different open source materials to decrease the cost of remedial textbooks and remove that financial hurdle for students.

What works

At Fort Smith, a math professor has created an online math program, in which remedial students can go through different lessons at their own pace. The school (and many others in the Arkansas system) has also developed a co-requisite program, in which students enroll directly in college-level courses, but have an extra hour per class built in for remediation.

It’s similar to a model developed by the Community College of Baltimore County, and now used by 254 schools across the country. In CCBC’s program, a professor teaches a session of college-level English 101 for an hour and fifteen minutes. Then, immediately afterward, students needing remediation (about half the class) spend an additional 75 minutes with the same instructor, honing in on problem areas. In 2014, nearly 40 percent of students in this program not only finished English 101, but went on to complete English 102, compared to fewer than 15 percent in traditional developmental courses, according to data from the college.

Programs and experiments like these take considerable time and energy — as well as more money than traditional remedial courses — for colleges to run. The CCBC program, for example, costs $78,000 a year for 54 credit hours; $35,000 of that is spent training faculty how to teach these courses, officials said. But CCBC President Kurtinitis says it’s worth it.

“It’s an expense we incur gladly,” she said. “It’s really an investment in retaining students who are now prepared at the college level.”