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Remedial college courses eyed

| Friday, May 6, 2011

Remedial college courses cost Pennsylvania $153 million a year, according to a new analysis by a national education advocacy group.

That figure includes $94 million in tuition for the classes, which address high-school level skills and do not count toward a postsecondary degree. In its cost estimate, the Alliance for Excellent Education, based in Washington, D.C., also counted $58 million in lost lifetime wages, because students who take remedial classes are more likely to drop out of college.

"It's a huge problem, there's no doubt," said Maria Ferguson, the organization's vice president for policy. "It's directly the result of the pipeline, which is high schools."

Using data from 2007-2008, the organization looked at statistics from every state and found that remedial education for college students costs the United States $5.6 billion a year, including $3.6 billion in tuition. One in three students require a remedial course, and 43 percent of people who start college will not earn a degree within six years.

"They're getting there and they're just tanking," Ferguson said.

Ferguson attributed the problem to students graduating from high school without the skills needed to survive in college. She advocated a national system of standards, or lists of things students are expected to learn in each grade, as well as tests that focus on whether students are learning what the standards say they should.

Last year, Pennsylvania became one of 42 states that, along with the District of Columbia, have adopted Common Core, a national set of standards for English and math.

"I think that there is an energy and a movement now," Ferguson said, "but as a nation we have not demonstrated great promise in this area."

In an interview in March, Ronald Tomalis, Gov. Corbett's nominee for state secretary of education, said that the administration was concerned about the rate of remedial education and corresponding high dropout rates.

"This is the end of the pipeline," he said. "These are kids who make it to graduation, these are kids who decide to apply, these are kids who are accepted to post-secondary. And then they take a non-credit course of high school math ... . Their parents are still paying the bill for room and board and fees. There's something about that system that we've got to take a look at."

Tomalis blamed both high schools and colleges for the problem. He suggested that the success of high schools should be measured not by how many students get into postsecondary programs but whether they succeed there.

Mirroring the national trend, area colleges report soaring enrollment in their remedial programs, commonly called developmental education.

At Westmoreland County Community College, three out of four students require at least one developmental course in math, reading or writing.

"We recognize the problem," college President Daniel Obara said.

WCCC participates in Achieving the Dream, a nationwide program that seeks to improve graduation rates for community colleges. As part of that program, the college has restructured its developmental courses, and it supports struggling students with tutoring and lessons in college study skills.

To address the root of the problem, the college also works with high schools and vocational-technical schools to make sure secondary programs are actually preparing students for higher education, but so far developmental courses are still necessary for the vast majority of students.

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