An unsettling number of incoming freshmen at American public universities - 50 percent or more at schools ranging from California's state university system to the City University of New York - need immediate remedial help in English and math. What to do?
One response is to attack lax admission standards and try to get rid of remedial courses. That approach, urged most prominently by New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, makes an unequivocal statement. Students are served notice - as are the schools and parents who helped shape their academic abilities.
That kind of wake-up call may have some value. But it won't answer the question of what to do with large numbers of young people already at, or near, the college doors. Some 70 percent of today's high school students aspire to college. Those aspirations are nurtured in most homes.
But the amount of remediation at the college level suggests a gap between people's hopes for education and their appreciation of the work required to get a sound education.
Education officials and teachers shoulder much of that work, and they're being held to tougher standards of accountability. Virginia, for example, is weighing a voluntary plan to guarantee high school diplomas. School districts would reimburse colleges or employers who have to give remedial help to recent graduates.
But the responsibility for acquiring an education also falls on students and parents. It's worrisome to read, as in a recent Boston Globe report, about high school students who take a lackadaisical attitude toward homework - doing it only when they feel like it. That's a sure route toward remedial work. Ditto the home environment that allows young minds to glom onto TV and computer games - as reading and writing withers.
There's also a social and political component to the question of preparing kids for college. Many of the entering freshmen in need of remedial courses in the basics come from communities where public schools are substandard, economic opportunity is sparse, and standard English is rarely heard. Government has a responsibility to direct educational resources, and innovation, toward such communities - for society's good, as well as the individual's.
Meanwhile, remedial instruction will continue to be a necessary - and affordable - investment for the country. A study by the Washington-based Institute for Higher Education Policy points out that such programs account for only $1 billion of the $115 billion being spent on public higher education yearly.
Simply shutting the doors on those who need this help would be counterproductive. But so would simply accepting the current level of remedial course work as inevitable.
Ideally, the catching up ought to start at a lower, more appropriate level. Universities that work with middle schools and high schools to make clear what they expect of students are on the right track.