Partial Remedy

(Editor’s Note: This is the first in a two-part series on remedial education in North Carolina’s colleges and universities.)

For years, a large percentage of North Carolina’s high school students have graduated without proficiency in either math or reading—and sometimes lacking in both.

North Carolina colleges and universities must deal with the fallout: thousands of students who need remedial education courses before beginning college-level work. The future for these incoming students is grim. While figures vary, national estimates suggest that only between 10 and 24 percent of remedial students get associate’s degrees and between 19 and 35 percent get bachelor’s degrees. Many leave school heavily in debt, with little learning to show for it.

This two-part article will look at what UNC and North Carolina’s community colleges are doing to address this problem. The news is decidedly mixed.

Lack of transparency has plagued remedial education in the UNC system for years. Early last year, I took the system to task for failing to track the educational outcomes (such as graduation rates) of students taking remedial courses. With the release of a report on remedial education in April 2012, the UNC system has remedied that problem.

The report reveals that 41 percent of students taking remedial courses at UNC system schools are graduating within six years—much better than the national figures, but still far below the six-year graduation rate for the university system as a whole, 53 percent. [See TABLE].

Graduation Rates of Remedial Students 2001-2005Another positive point is that remedial education has been declining at UNC campuses. From 1992 to 2011, enrollment in remedial courses fell by 30 percent, according to UNC figures. In 2010-11, 4,635 students in the UNC system took at least one remedial course, a decrease of 16 percent from the previous year. Today, slightly less than three percent of all undergraduates in the UNC system take courses officially designated as remedial.

The bad news is that these figures are not very reliable and may understate the number of remedial students on UNC campuses. Standards determining which students require remediation seem to vary across UNC campuses, even though the system took action in 2011 to define just what a remedial course is.

That definition still leaves a lot of room for confusion.

Fayetteville State, for example, has reported no students in remedial courses since 2004, despite the fact that the bottom 25 percent of FSU freshmen that year scored below 770 on the verbal and mathematics portion of the SAT. In the same year, more than 13 percent of Elizabeth City State students—who scored comparably on the SAT—took remedial courses.

Another source of confusion is whether or not academic support programs are considered remedial education. According to the system-wide definition, such programs are remedial only if they are specifically for remedial students. Schools that have academic support open to all students do not identify it as remedial. This makes it impossible to determine whether students who need extra help are actually getting it, or whether they are succeeding academically.

And while the overall picture is one of a decline in remediation, several schools in the UNC system, including Fayetteville State, still use summer bridge programs (as Jay Schalin wrote about here) to admit students who aren’t academically qualified. Yet such programs are often left out of official assessments of remedial education, making it difficult to track student progress. And the UNC Strategic Plan, approved by the UNC Board of Governors in March, calls for expansion of participation in summer bridge programs.

Even so, the decline in remediation is a positive step. The UNC system’s increasing minimum admission standards are at least partially responsible. Starting in 2005-06, the UNC system only admitted high school graduates who had completed four math courses during high school—at least one of which was beyond Algebra II. Starting in 2006, all applicants to the system were required to submit standardized test scores.

And beginning in 2011, high school graduates had to meet higher performance standards in terms of GPA, SAT, and ACT scores in order to be admitted to schools in the system. Today, a student must have a high school GPA of at least 2.5 and must score at least 800 (out of 1600) on the SAT or 17 (out of 36) on the ACT.

Such standards are beneficial, in my view. Four-year institutions are the wrong place for remedial students. But such policies have undoubtedly redirected many low-performing students into community colleges. Today, 69 percent of all community college students in the state take at least one remedial course.

How the community college system is dealing with those students will be the topic of the next article in this series.

(Editor’s note: The second part of this series can be found here.)