Recently, the trustees at the City University of New York voted to eliminate remedial education programs at its 11 four-year schools. Mayor Giuliani heralded the trustees for their "courageous vote." Meanwhile, a number of Maryland legislators have become vocal critics of remedial education in two-and four-year state institutions of higher learning. The CUNY decision undoubtedly will heat up this smoldering debate on the role of colleges in preparing unprepared students who wish to attend college.
On the surface, the decision seems reasonable, if not exactly courageous. Why should colleges have the responsibility to remediate - that is, to deliver curriculum and instruction that students have had in high school? Why shouldn't CUNY return to its glory days 50 years ago when it was known as "the proletarian Harvard"? Why admit students whose likelihood of graduation is lower, who require additional resources, who foster the perception of falling standards?
In Maryland, the Remedial Eduction Subcommittee of the Maryland Partnership for Teaching and Learning K-16 Work Group has spent the last year attempting to provide a cogent set of responses to these issues. The subcommittee, composed of representatives from school systems, two-year and four-year colleges and universities, the Maryland Association of Community Colleges and the Maryland Higher Education Commission, spent the last year examining and conducting research on remediation at the post-secondary level. The subcommittee sought to identify factors contributing to underprepared students entering college, to suggest approaches to reduce the need for remedial education, and to determine the role of colleges in providing remedial programs.
Like all colleges and universities across the nation, all of Maryland's community colleges and many of its four-year institutions offer some form of remedial course work. Placement tests for entering community college students in Maryland indicate that approximately 60 percent need remedial work in English and reading or math, or both. Remedial courses in four-year colleges place more emphasis on math.
Students who complete remedial courses do well in college and graduate at about the same rate as their adequately prepared peers. Clearly, remedial efforts can serve a useful purpose, providing a pathway to graduation that might otherwise be inaccessible.
Not surprisingly, the less prepared students are when they enter college, the less likely they are to complete remedial course work, particularly if they are deficient in more than one area. While increasing the number of prepared entering students is vital to raising graduation rates, it is equally important to consider ways to improve the completion rate of students who are enrolled in remedial course work.
The first argument against eliminating remedial education is philosophical. In the glory days of CUNY, despite its proletarian leanings, college education was for the few. The majority of high school students were not encouraged to attend college. It was not necessary. The work force did not place much of a demand on college-educated employees. But, as the Partnership for Family Involvement in Education concluded in 1996, "Education beyond high school is I becoming more of a necessity to make a living and ensure our well-being in a highly technological society."
In fact, the proliferation of community colleges in the 1960s and 1970s was a response to a social and economic mandate to broaden access to higher education.
The CUNY decision begs the question of whether we wish to return to an era of limited educational access. Critics of remedial education would argue that the CUNY plan only limits opportunities to unqualified students. After all, students needing remedial education have had the same opportunities as all other students and should be prepared for college. But this assertion is based on the assumption that candidates for remedial course work either have squandered opportunities or lack the ability to take advantage of those opportunities. Many students exiting high school have not been on a "college prep" track; yet critics of remedial education seem to presume that every high school graduate should be (and has had the opportunity to be) prepared for college. Even some students who successfully complete college prep tracks find themselves deficient when faced with the demands of college.
Clearly, gaps exist between expectations of high school and college. In fact, this disparity caused the subcommittee to reconsider the term "remedial course work." Many students graduating from high school need further development - not a repetition of previous material. Students demonstrate competence as defined by their high school programs but do not meet standards when they enter two-and four-year colleges.
Regardless of terminology, the elimination of remedial programs restricts the possibility of a second chance to students who perhaps did not fully apply themselves in high school. Are they at an educational dead end because they did not demonstrate sufficient maturity in early adolescence? How many of us wish we had applied ourselves more in high school? How many of us did something stupid that might have caused irreparable damage had we not been given a second chance?
Elimination denies a second chance to students who did not choose or perhaps were not advised to choose the college-prep track. Should their education be terminated because of a bad decision, not necessarily their own? Elimination denies a second chance to adult students who wish to return to school. Should their attempts to advance themselves be thwarted because their skills are rusty?
Finally, the subcommittee concluded that factors such as poverty, less-than-adequate home environment, family responsibilities, emotional problems, poor study skills and learning disabilities might contribute to placement in remedial course work. Elimination of remedial programs denies opportunities, particularly to those students who might be making the greatest effort to overcome obstacles not of their own making.
Another argument against eliminating remedial programs in college is practical or, perhaps more specifically, financial. Critics question the expense of providing remedial education. Certainly, in the short run, remedial courses stretch resources at institutions of higher education.
But the long run paints a different picture. A 1996 Maryland Higher Education Commission report estimated that approximately 7,200 students were taking remedial courses at community colleges. Let us assume that these students on average need 15 hours of remedial course work. Using a rough approximation that the state contributes about $140 for each hour of remedial course work, the cost to taxpayers would be slightly more than $15 million. But if those students graduate, the investment pays off handsomely. According to the Partnership for Family Involvement in Education (1996), graduates of community colleges earn on average $12,000 more per year than high school graduates. Consequently, in one year, if even half of those 7,200 students graduate, they will earn $43 million more that they would have without a college degree.
Now consider the effect of such earning power over a 40-year career. In addition to the increased tax revenue, the higher skill level of these graduates responds to the demands of the job market and potentially makes Maryland more attractive to business and industry.
The CUNY decision affects a four-year, not a two-year, institution. The role of remedial education in four-year colleges and universities in Maryland might be less of an issue because these institutions are more selective in their entrance requirements. Nevertheless, four-year colleges will need to play a role particularly in mathematics, in which high school graduation and college entry requirements are disparate. A more comprehensive system of remedial support is vital at community colleges, which then offer an effective transition to further education. It is difficult to understand why some Maryland legislators favor the elimination of remedial education at the community college level. Such a course of action is not well advised.
Eliminating the need
The issues surrounding remedial education merit more than the Draconian response of "Let's get rid of these students." The subcommittee sees remedial course work as something that should be reduced. But elimination of the programs is not the solution. Instead, we need to focus on eliminating the need for remedial education at the college level.
The subcommittee developed a list of approximately 20 recommendations that will help high school graduates be better prepared for the demands of postsecondary education. These recommendations include forming more partnerships to focus on curricula and course content of high schools and colleges, thereby reducing gaps between high school and college; implementing intervention programs beginning in 10th grade to assess college readiness and appropriate course selection; developing mentoring programs between college students and high school students and between businesses and high school students; and providing extensive counseling for college-bound high school students. Increasing the preparedness of students entering college will not be easy, but realistic responses to significant issues rarely are.
Henry B. Reiff is Associate Dean of Academic Affairs at Western Maryland College and a member of the Remedial Education Subcommittee of the Maryland Partnership for Teaching and Learning K-16 Work Group.
Pub Date: 6/07/98