• U.S.

Who’s Ready for College?

8 minute read
John Cloud/Nashville

Should you be allowed into college if you don’t read well enough to understand your local paper? What if you can’t reliably write a complete sentence? It may seem obvious that students lacking such basic skills could barely survive high school, much less college, but even students who have trouble reading routinely get into college. In fact, more than 600,000 of the freshmen who arrived at U.S. colleges this fall–remarkably, 29% of the total–are taking at least one remedial reading, writing or math class. Taxpayers spend approximately $1 billion a year on the classes.

Such course work varies in difficulty, but by definition it all should have been mastered by 12th grade. That means we pay twice to teach some people the rudiments. Nothing angers conservatives more than fiscal excess on behalf of the slothful, which is how they see remediation; nixing the classes has become a pet issue for some. In 1999 New York Republicans successfully pushed the City University of New York to curtail what had become vast remedial programs.

Now the backlash has gone national. President Bush spoke out against the rise of remediation in a back-to-school speech on Aug. 29, and many state leaders are joining the fight. At least eight states now banish all or most remedial students from four-to two-year campuses on the theory that a state’s flagship universities should not be teaching someone how to add fractions. Next year Tennessee will begin such a policy, but the state’s higher-education commission has suggested something more sweeping: banning the use of state money for any remediation, even at community colleges. Similarly, legislators in Utah, which spends $3 million yearly to subsidize remedial courses, are considering whether to ask those who need the classes to pay for them.

Advocates for the status quo worry that students who are forced into community colleges for remedial classes will never make it to four-year universities. They point to studies showing that only about a quarter of community-college students transfer to four-year schools within five years. “Some of our most at-risk students will have a longer pipeline to get to the four-year institutions, and, unfortunately, not as many will make it,” says Melodye Wiens, a remedial-reading instructor who is president of the National Association for Developmental Education. Others argue that states shouldn’t ask students to pay more for remedial classes because doing so amounts to punishing them for having attended terrible high schools. Finally, remedial teachers point out that a disproportionate percentage of their students are black or Hispanic. That means states already struggling to maintain diverse campuses in an anti-affirmative-action climate will have to work around yet another obstacle to minority enrollment.

But the stakes are even higher. The number of students who need remedial classes is so great–29% of freshmen, remember–that ejecting them could effectively end the American experiment with mass postsecondary education. That experiment began with the G.I. Bill and really flowered in the 1960s, when the proliferation of financial aid allowed just about any determined boomer who wanted a college education to get one. (Not coincidentally, remedial education had exploded by the ’70s.) The debate over remediation, then, is really an argument about what–and whom–college is for. When should the laudable goal of access for all yield to the equally important need to set standards–standards that may exclude some?

Last month I met students who had just begun remedial writing at Middle Tennessee State University, a four-year college in Murfreesboro that is Tennessee’s second largest university. Like all the state’s other public four-year colleges, Middle won’t get state funding for remedial courses next year. Some of its students may end up at Nashville State Tech Community College, where I sat in on a remedial math class. With their gleaming flat-screen Apples and Dells, the classrooms for Middle’s remedial students felt like high-tech offices. But my math class at Nashville State had an old projector for transparent work sheets that required instructor Lillian Dibblee to lick her fingers and manually wipe off completed problems. By the end of class, her fingers were black. I wondered if such little indignities might not help explain why only 25% of Nashville State students graduate, vs. 42% of those at Middle.

At both schools the remedial classes were better than I expected. The Middle writing instructor, Crosby Hunt, gave solid advice on matters large (“organize your thoughts before you begin”) and small (“the phrase ‘egregious a__hole’ can be very effective”). Dibblee’s lecture at Nashville State included plenty of flummoxing algebra; hers isn’t a class where students review multiplication tables. The students were also surprising. Foes of remedial classes seem to believe that most of the students just aren’t trying hard enough–and that the others simply lack the intelligence for college work. And in fact I met students who, I suspect, fit both categories.

But I also met Charles Williams, a freshman at Middle who dropped out of high school 25 years ago to join the Marines. He eventually became an aircraft mechanic, but he found he couldn’t get a management job in aviation without an aerospace degree. Now 44, married and raising three kids, he seems like one of the more disciplined students on campus; after class he goes home, not to frat parties. Williams needs remedial writing and algebra mostly because it has been years since he was called upon to do either. He speaks up in class a lot, and one of his teachers has already told Williams he should soon be able to attend regular classes.

Students ages 22 and over account for 43% of those in remedial classrooms, according to the National Center for Developmental Education. Not all are like Williams, but 55% of those needing remediation in Tennessee must take just one course. Is it too much to ask them to pay extra for that class or take it at a community college? Someone as dedicated as Williams would take those extra steps, but he knows some of his classmates would not: “You’re going to demoralize these kids. Say I’ve had trouble in high school, and now you’re going to throw me into junior college? You take some of their pride, and they may not pursue any higher education.” Consider also that 38% of colleges call English-as-a-second-language courses remedial–and some classify programs for the learning disabled as such. Few argue that we should automatically send these nontraditional but often talented students to community colleges–but that is precisely the effect of policies that end remediation at four-year schools.

Still, making exceptions wouldn’t solve the core problem of high schools’ turning out ill-prepared graduates. And some argue that college remediation actually makes the problem worse. Jackson Toby, a Rutgers sociology professor, says remedial and other programs that maximize access to college send a message to high schoolers that getting into college is no big deal. Williams reflects this point of view when he says of a few of his remedial classmates, “They’re not in the real world now, so some are probably more interested in socializing. The real world will be a jolt.” If that’s true, how can we jolt these kids before they leave high school?

California has a promising approach. Four years ago, the California State University system began booting students who did not complete their remedial work within a year. Last year 2,277 students were told they couldn’t re-enroll unless they completed remedial classes elsewhere. But Cal State is also making sure that high schoolers know about the tough policy long before they arrive. The system is spending $9 million to send its professors and students into the 172 high schools that graduate most of Cal State’s remedial kids. The visitors tutor pupils in the basics and carefully explain what classes they will need to get in and stay in. With the extra push in high school, not as many Cal State freshmen need remediation: the percentage testing into remedial math fell from 54% in 1997 to 46% last year. (The proportion who must take remedial English rests stubbornly at 46%.)

Few states work as hard as California to keep students from needing remedial classes. Tennessee, for instance, has no plans to spend its savings from cutting remediation on high school outreach programs. If it did, the state might find that the goal of broad access to college doesn’t have to conflict with setting high expectations for those who want to go.

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