Many college freshmen need remedial work, often delaying graduation, increasing costs
One in four college freshmen nationwide takes at least one noncredit remedial class, a study by the U.S. Department of Education found.
The finding, based on 2012 statistics — coupled with a study this spring of the National Assessment of Educational Progress that found nearly four in 10 high school seniors lack reading and math skills for entry-level college work — is prompting some educators to review what they do.
Costly remedial courses that tackle math, reading and writing skills can delay college graduation and increase by half the likelihood that students will not complete studies, said former West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise, president of the Washington-based Alliance for Excellence in Education.
In a nation where student debt eclipses credit card debt, Wise's group found staggering costs nationwide from remedial courses: $3.6 billion in tuition alone in 2007-08.
“As more students show up needing financial aid, it doesn't do anyone any good if students burn through it in the first year on remediation,” Wise said.
In Pennsylvania, freshmen at the 14 state-owned universities in the State System of Higher Education took 4,584 remedial courses in the 2012-13 school year. That cost about $1,000 a course.
Pennsylvania Education Secretary Carolyn Dumaresq told the Tribune-Review in April that such numbers make a potent argument for raising the bar in public schools.
Dumaresq's spokesman, Tim Eller, said she is battling attempts to weaken graduation requirements for students, and hopes that lawmakers pass pension reform that could free dollars to enhance student support systems and educators' professional development.
“For me, the reason to increase rigor in content is twofold,” Dumaresq said. “One, for those who go to college, it means less remediation, and (two), less remediation is less costly to taxpayers and parents, as well as time for the student.”
Some colleges that examined remedial education are posting interesting results.
Daniel Engstrom, associate provost in the Office of Academic Success at California University of Pennsylvania, said the university changed its approach and students are reaping the benefits.
“We changed our focus from, ‘OK, you have to go to these classes,' to ‘what can we do to best accommodate our students?' ” Engstrom said.
Instead of bringing students on campus for one day of placement testing, with no explanation of tests that would be given, officials at Cal U began notifying incoming students that they would be required to take tests and directed them to websites with study materials.
“The other thing we did was, we stopped the practice of sending students to remedial courses immediately in their first semester, if they needed help,” Engstrom said. “Instead, we contacted them in the fall and said, ‘We'd like you to retake the test. And we have tutors who can work with you and get you to your best work before then.' ”
As a result, he said, the percentage of freshmen who needed remedial help declined from 36.5 percent in 2009-10 to 17.4 percent in 2012-13. At the same time, the need for remedial help declined slightly systemwide at the state universities, from 21.9 percent in 2009-10 to 18.9 percent in 2012-13.
Cal U beefed up tutoring programs and began promoting them aggressively at little or no additional cost, Engstrom said.
“If anything, I think we've saved money because we've been able to have students graduate on time,” he said.
Although SAT scores of incoming freshmen declined slightly, the number who needed remedial work declined, and the school's freshman-to-sophomore retention rate increased from 73 percent in 2011 to 78 percent in 2012.
Cal U officials reached out to neighboring school districts and scheduled meetings between high school math teachers and math professors at the college.
“We had a great dialogue,” Engstrom said.
Wise said his group found other colleges and high schools taking action to better prepare students for college.
“We're finally getting the message that it's vital to our economy, that 60 percent of our jobs now require some form of post-secondary education,” Wise said.
Debra Erdley is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996 or firstname.lastname@example.org.