Clock is ticking for remedial students

In a closely watched move, a state university system pushes out those who don't master the basics

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When remedial writing instructor Adrienne Peek pauses to think about the hundreds of California State University (CSU) students she has labored to help write at a college level, one stands out below the rest.

"When I met him, he had about 100 course units [90 is standard for seniors] but was not even close to graduating," she says. "He was taking remedial English for the fifth time. At the end of the semester, he asked me to help him write a letter to the financial aid office."

Students as helpless as he was with writing might still be at the Fresno campus - except for the state's new get-tough policy on remedial education, Ms. Peek says. Soon after he was pushed out, the university system began in 1999-2000 to "disenroll" - give the boot to - students who don't pass remedial writing or math within one academic year.

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In January, for the second year in a row, CSU announced that it expelled 2,277 students across its 22 campuses last spring, about 7 percent of its freshman class. That was a slight increase from the year before. Others left voluntarily. And CSU will kick out another bunch this spring.

On the softer side, the CSU system is also now spending $9 million a year to work closely with 172 high schools to align their standards with university expectations.

It's a big, controversial experiment. With 388,000 students, CSU is the nation's largest university system, and its get-tough policy is being closely watched.

Many support the measures, while others argue that they will unfairly impact minorities and immigrants. Still, with state higher-education budgets tight and getting tighter, many public institutions dearly want to slash the costs of remedial education.

"What's happening in ... California portends what will happen in the rest of country," says Yolanda Moses, president of the American Association for Higher Education, a lobby group in Washington.

Many states, she says, are looking for a fix for this hot-button issue. Cries of "double billing" - paying a second time to teach students what they should have learned in high school - echo in legislative chambers. Others decry the dumbing down of American higher education. Then there's cost: $1 billion to $2 billion annually - a small percentage of what the nation's colleges and universities spend overall, but enough to attract attention.

A 1995 Department of Education report - the last national snapshot of the issue - says 78 percent of higher education institutions offer remedial classes. Some say many more colleges offer remedial classes, but won't say so in surveys because it might mar their image.

States such as Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Virginia have tried with varied success to curb remedial education costs, too. But California, Massachusetts, and New York have the toughest policies, shunting most remedial help to community colleges.

Urged on by then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, the New York State Board of Regents raised admission standards and cut remedial education at its 11 four-year senior colleges in 1999. The change was completed last fall. The CUNY system now conducts noncredit summer classes for high school grads who don't score high enough in English and math placement tests.

So far, that experiment seems to be a qualified success. On the downside, applications for the English-as-a-second language summer classes have fallen. Some say the drop indicates that immigrants feel shut out. But applications and enrollment overall are up strongly, not down as many had feared.

"We're well on our way to reshaping the university," Chancellor Matthew Goldstein told The Chronicle of Higher Education recently. "It is becoming the university of choice instead of one where often people used it as a last measure."

As for CSU, it spends upward of $10 million on remedial English and math systemwide. That may drop as campuses begin to see more high schools in tune with university requirements and more academically "proficient" students applying.

So far, proficiency in math among CSU freshmen has improved, but in English it has dipped. In 1995, before the program began, just 48 percent of new CSU freshmen were proficient in math and 57 percent in English. By fall 2000-2001, however, 54 percent of entering freshmen were proficient in both math and English.

It's a long way from the goal of 90 percent proficiency in math and English by 2007. And it's not satisfying to Ralph Pesqueira, a San Diego businessman and a member of CSU's board who spearheaded the policy after hearing complaints from faculty during campus visits.

"These professors kept saying to me, 'What can we do about these students who just can't read and write - they come here, sit in class, and don't have the foggiest idea,' " he recalls.

On the other hand, these get-tough policies have already gone too far for some, who say they are short-sighted and unfair to minorities.

"I think it's a bad idea to kick students out and cut back on remedial help," says Melodye Wiens, president elect of the National Association for Developmental Education. "It's not that the kids are stupid, it's just that most of them haven't taken college prep courses, so they're underprepared."

Going back three centuries, these observers point out, American higher education has always assumed it was part of its role to make up for what was not taught in high school.

Ronald Phipps, a senior associate at the Institute for Higher Education, a nonpartisan research group in Washington, calls remedial education a "core function" of US higher education. "There has never been a golden age in American educational history when all students who enrolled in college were adequately prepared," he wrote in a 1998 report. Harvard College in the 17th century provided tutors in Greek and Latin for underprepared students. From the GI Bill after World War II to the arrival of "open admission" in the 1960s, universities have supplied remedial education.

Still, Dr. Moses says states and universities will need to be creative and work much harder to align high school standards with universities' expectations. "Universities train the teachers, and until the teachers in the classroom understand the larger purpose of knowledge, and can link that to where students are going with this knowledge, we're going to be in a conundrum. Universities cannot fob this problem off on someone else."

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