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An Academic Leg Up

March 30, 1998



Students who reach college ought to be able to do college work, right? Few would argue with that logic, but logic and practical necessity have long diverged here.

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Even many top universities have traditionally provided entering freshman with what amounts to remedial education. In some places, it has been a matter of mandatory "bonehead" English courses for nearly everyone. The assumption has been that most high school graduates needed some help - indeed, a sharp prod - to bring their writing skills up to speed.

With more writing, and earlier writing, in elementary and secondary schools, more Americans may be reaching college already operating at college level. That's to be hoped.

But the huge diversity of school districts in the US, with widely varying degrees of academic rigor, ensures that many of the college-bound will continue to need help once they arrive. And the widening flow of students from non-English cultural and language backgrounds into US colleges will intensify that need.

Which brings us to a case in point: City University of New York. CUNY is in the midst of a running battle with some of its trustees and with Mayor Rudolph Giuliani over its extensive offering of remedial classes. CUNY sees these classes as integral to its heralded open admission for anyone with a high school diploma. The school helps erase a student's academic deficit; the student, of course, has to provide hard work and innate talent.

Whether at CUNY or other schools committed to an open door, students lacking these latter two ingredients won't succeed, remediation or not. But if the remedial courses allow significant numbers of young Americans from low-income, or recent-immigrant families to better themselves - and become assets to society - the cost in dollars, and offended logic, seems relatively minor.