WORCESTER, MASS. — Higher education in Massachusetts threatened to get tough this year with would-be college freshmen like Benjamin Chin. And it has.
Instead of relaxing this summer before his first year at a public four-year college, Mr. Chin spends his days in remedial algebra and English classes at Quinsigamond Community College here.
He knows it's the price he must pay if he's going to attend nearby Worcester State College this fall. Mr. Chin graduated with "decent" grades from high school two weeks ago. But poor SAT scores "threw me away," he says.
Even so, in prior years Worcester State would have accepted him, no questions asked, and allowed him to take remedial courses as a freshman. This year, the school told Chin that before enrolling he must first pass remedial classes.
In Massachusetts, as in many other states, public concern and political rhetoric are heating up over the one-third of all college freshmen nationwide who are taking at least one remedial math, reading, or writing course, according to government surveys.
While much blame is cast at high schools, fixing the problem involves raising the bar at four-year colleges, some say. And that increasingly means trimming out courses that help freshmen get up to speed. Remedial or "developmental" courses water down curricula and represent "paying twice" to educate a student up to college-level ability, advocates say.
"From coast to coast, the quality of academic excellence in our colleges and universities is going down," says James Carlin, chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education. "If a student is not prepared for four-year college work, that student should not be in the institution. It's not fair to the taxpayer."
Raising the bar at college will pressure high schools to perform better, too, if they find their graduates are not being admitted to four-year institutions, he says.
Remedial work in colleges expanded greatly in the 1980s, following the 1970s adoption of "open-admissions" policies by most public institutions. Dropping most admissions requirements fundamentally "democratized" higher education, opening it to the masses. For that reason, and the opportunity it brings, many tout remedial education in higher education as a vital tool.
"We need all Americans," says Robert McCabe, a senior fellow at the League for Innovation in Community Colleges. "We can't throw any people away. If we have large numbers of people who don't have the skills society is calling for, then we lose in every way."
The changes under way at colleges vary by state, ranging from simply cutting funding for remedial courses - as South Carolina did at several research universities - to Louisiana, which funds three tries at passing a remedial course. In Oklahoma and Wisconsin, colleges charge extra for such courses. "Containment" is the policy in Massachusetts - transferring most, but not all, remedial courses out of public four-year colleges into community colleges. The number of freshmen at four-year colleges who may take remedial classes has been capped at 10 percent, dropping to 5 percent next year.
Even more radical, trustees at City University of New York (CUNY) last month approved chopping remedial classes out of its 11 four-year colleges. Students who do not pass placement exams in reading, writing, and arithmetic can't attend a four-year CUNY college until they do.
The impact is potentially huge. Some estimate 13,000 freshmen and transfer students - about half those who enroll in CUNY's senior colleges - will have to boost skills at a community college first. "We are cleaning out the four-year colleges and putting remediation where it belongs," Anne Paolucci, chairman of CUNY'S board of trustees said recently.
Critics say colleges have themselves to blame for lowering admissions standards to keep enrollments up. At CUNY, remedial courses were up to 12 percent of total instruction. The focus will now shift to retraining these students in community colleges.
Remedial ed still offers a tempting target for budget cutters. But strictures like those imposed at CUNY are penny wise and pound foolish given the benefits and relatively low cost of remedial education, says Hunter Boylan, director of the National Center for Developmental Education in Boone, N.C. "I find it interesting that legislators who have starved public high schools of the funds necessary to provide college preparatory courses, are now complaining students aren't prepared for college," he says. "We're getting what we paid for."
A study by the Brookings Institution in Washington pegs the cost for remedial education in the nation's colleges at about $1 billion a year. That is less than 1 percent of the nation's higher education budget, Dr. Boylan says.
But even if the CUNY decision does limit access to a four-year education for some, it still represents a major step in the right direction, says Bradford Wilson, executive director of the National Association of Scholars, a think tank on higher education,
"It [CUNY] provides the most powerful incentive now at our disposal to get high schools to live up to their obligations to prepare students for college-level work," he says. "Until now, high schools have not had to live with the consequences of poor preparation: having their students get shut out of four-year colleges."
Even Chin, laboring over summer homework, agrees: "Maybe this is good for Worcester State. Instead of carrying a boatload of people - maybe they'll get a lot more people who want to learn."
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