About 1 in 5 Students Need Remedial Help in College

February 11, 2010

Expert says universities, high schools need to work together

It should have been a simple math question. But it stumped more than half of Michigan’s fourth-graders last year. Many of them never catch on, even by high school. As a result, remedial education classes are flourishing at colleges and universities. Walk onto any of the state’s 28 community colleges, and one of every five students is enrolled in a remedial education course. National data suggests that one in five students at four-year colleges seek remedial coursework, too.

And it’s a costly problem. In Michigan, more than $28 million is spent on remediation at the community college level alone.

Educators say there’s plenty of blame to go around — underperforming schools, overwhelmed parents, distracted students and even misaligned curricula throughout grades K-12 and into college.

But almost everyone agrees on this, said Henry Robinson, who oversees some of Wayne State University’s remedial programs: “For a number of reasons and in a number of ways, we are failing our students, and that means some of the brightest ones, too.”

What is taught in high school falls short

Math was never really a problem for Cameron Poole. Factoring polynomials, working through linear equations, defining slopes. He thought he’d figured it all out. But last fall, there he was — just months after he’d been handed a high school diploma — assigned to remedial math in a Wayne County Community College classroom rather than traditional classes at Wayne State University, as he’d planned. “I was shocked,” said Poole, who said he graduated from Summit Academy High School in Romulus with mostly B’s. “I thought I would be taking a step ahead, like into calculus.”

Nationwide, it has been estimated that one in five students at universities enroll in a remedial class. At community colleges, which do the heavy lifting in remedial work, it has been estimated that 60% of first-time students need at least one remedial course.

Many of those students, certainly, are returning adults who left high school years ago. Others are students who have mild developmental disabilities. But what bothers educators and policy-makers is this: Many are also recent graduates who have left the high school stage with a diploma, only to find out a few months later that they’re not ready for even basic college work.

Just 18% of last year’s high school graduates in Michigan were prepared for college-level English, writing, reading, mathematics and science, according to the ACT’s Profile Report for the Class of 2009.

“Regrettably, I’ve seen salutatorians and valedictorians go to college and need remedial courses,” said former West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise, who now heads the Alliance for Excellent Education, an education research and advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.

He and others see disjointed expectations in part: What is taught in high school simply falls short of what will be necessary in college.

In a recent survey about curriculum, 7,680 grade-school teachers and college instructors were asked whether their students were college-ready by the time they graduated high school. About 91% of high school teachers felt their students were prepared; just 26% of college instructors reported that students arrived on campus prepared.

Those differences too easily set up a round of finger-pointing, said Rob Baird, vice president for School-University Partnerships at the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, which is helping recruit more science and math teachers for Michigan’s underserved schools.

Take writing — a skill that Baird said is losing emphasis in schools these days in early grades. Too many students head to school unprepared to get basic thoughts across in print. But high school teachers — already having to cover a set curriculum through the year — have neither the time nor the training to get those students caught up.

In college, the gap only widens, as the now-college freshman is unable to write even the most basic essay.

“Most high school teachers say, ‘Hey, they’re supposed to come to me with that skill ready.’ … The college instructors say, ‘Why can’t they do this work?’ ”

“To put it very bluntly, the schools and the colleges need to start working together. … Everybody’s passing the buck.”

Money and other factors

The prevalence of remedial education is not only frustrating for educators and students, it’s also costly for a state in a financial nosedive.

In 2006, the alliance estimated that remedial education at colleges costs students and U.S. taxpayers about $1.4 billion each year.

Worse than the sticker shock is the waste of resources, said Wise: “The taxpayer is paying twice because they’re paying for what should have already been taught in high school. … We’re better off getting it right the first time.”

More specific to Michigan is a 2009 report by the Michigan Office of the Auditor General: For two academic years starting in the fall of 2005, one in four freshmen on Michigan’s community college campuses — or 105,608 students in all — was enrolled in some remedial education class, costing the schools — and indirectly, the taxpayer — $28 million to provide course work and support staff.

The need for college-ready graduates is undeniable in an economy that is demanding some kind of post-secondary education for nearly every student for the jobs of the future.

“We find even college-ready people are really declining” in reading comprehension, said Leslie Roberts, who teaches remedial education at Oakland Community College. “They may literally be reading at a certain grade level, but that doesn’t mean they can decode words … (or) decipher main ideas from examples or use what they’ve read for a test.”

And the reasons? It depends on whom you ask.

Some will blame teachers who don’t care. Or teachers who care but are overwhelmed by the chaos and desperation at large, stressed school districts. Then there are parents who don’t care. Or schools that lack resources. Curricula that doesn’t challenge. Students who lack drive. Graduation requirements that — at least previously — lacked uniformity.

Brandon Hole blames himself, too. A graduate of Novi High School, the 18-year-old is now learning to dissect biographies and lengthy essays in remedial classes at OCC, and he’s using student planners and study guides to make sure he sets aside enough time for homework.

He has already written a half-dozen papers since classes started last month — fewer than what he might do in an entire semester in high school, he said.

“I wasn’t really a great student. … I didn’t have my head in the right place. I slacked off.”

Now, he said, he has a goal in mind: a degree in physical therapy.

“All my friends went off to college. … I realized I’ve got to get motivated.”

For some, though, it’s more confined to one year. They call it senioritis.

Jason Hamstra, the academic dean at Poole’s high school, said he sees it every year among the oldest teens: “They say, ‘It’s my senior year. I want to take it easy,’ rather than, ‘It’s my senior year. I should be getting ready for college.’ ”

The school offers math through advanced-placement calculus, and everyone, including Poole, needs to get through at least Algebra II to graduate. And Poole was “definitely not a slacker,” Hamstra said.

For her part, Poole’s mother, Pamela Poole, said she was also surprised to learn that an assessment test at WSU routed her son through remedial classes. At their Romulus home, Poole would routinely disappear into a quiet computer room — away from the television and the hubbub of family — with homework, later bringing home report cards filled with B’s for his effort.

“Every once in a while, I’d say, ‘Have you done this or have you done that?’ ” Pamela Poole said of her son’s studies. “And most of the time, it was already done. He was good like that.”

Working toward a solution

With the state struggling to get traction again in a changed economy, it’s more important than ever to get students ready for college before they step foot on campus.

In Detroit, partnerships such as WSU’s Pathways program with WCCC — the program Poole is in — wrap services around struggling students. In addition to remedial classes, staff and tutors help students get financial aid or make sure they’re completing class assignments and studying for exams.

Many remedial students are first-time college-goers, and the idea is to immerse them in school so they have someone to turn to if they run into academic problems.

At Jackson Community College last summer, faculty from local high schools spent three days at conference tables with community college teachers. They exchanged textbooks and syllabi and discussed teaching techniques.

College faculty learned they’d made assumptions about what students had been taught; high school teachers learned better what would be expected of students in college math, said JCC President Daniel Phelan.

Kristi Hanby, math coordinator at Jackson County Intermediate School District, helped moderate the three-day Math Summit. She said instructors at both levels realized that high schools were covering many of the skills needed in college, but often, the students simply lost them over time.

“It’s not that we don’t teach” the skills, she said. “None of us are going into classrooms and being negligent, but we need to find ways to help them retain what they learn.”

In Detroit, WSU’s Center for Excellence and Equity in Math this year has partnered with Western International High School to help redesign its math curriculum, so students there are ready for college-level work by the time they walk across the stage at high school graduation.

The program is overseen by a WSU professor with a doctorate in mathematics, and that sort of “bird’s-eye perspective” allows him to see “how the sixth-grade topics relate to the ninth-grade topics and to what’s demanded of a freshman college student and to even the masters student,” said Monica McLeod, the center’s associate director.

The program streamlines curriculum so that even language in instructions is consistent. A student can understand that “reducing fractions” is the same process as “simplifying algebraic fractions,” she said.

These are the types of programs that might shrink the need that now costs a cash-strapped state $28 million at its community colleges alone.

“It’s a huge chunk of money,” said Mary Ann McGee, a counselor at OCC and chairwoman of the college’s academic senate.

But she doesn’t see remedial education completely going away.

“It’s a moral conundrum. Do we say (to students): ‘Gosh, I’m really sorry that your high school didn’t do what it was supposed to do or when you were 14 or 15 (years old), you were out partying rather than studying. … And now that you’re serious, we have nothing for you’?

“No. I don’t think that’s where we want to be. But community colleges are caught in a vise here, you know? We have massively declining resources to meet greater demands. So we have to look and say, ‘Wow, how much of our educational dollar can go to fixing these problems?’ ”

Contact ROBIN ERB: 313-222-2708 or [email protected]

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Kim Lifton

Kim Lifton is President of Wow Writing Workshop. Perceptive, resourceful and curious, Kim can get a story out of anyone. Kim is a former newspaper reporter and corporate communications manager. With Susan Knoppow, Wow’s CEO, Kim developed the Wow Method by combining her journalistic training with Susan’s organization and instructional design skills. She holds a BA in Journalism from Michigan State University. Kim’s articles on the college essay appear regularly in print and on the web, and her work has been featured in a variety of newspapers, magazines and online publications. Kim and Susan have co-authored three books – How to Write an Effective College Application Essay (The Inside Scoop for Parents, Students, Counselors). They are members/affiliates of the Michigan Association of College Admission Counseling (MACAC), the National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC), the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) and the Higher Education Consultants Association (HECA).
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