Remediation’s End?

Higher education is by definition a place for advanced learning; it is not intended to be the place to learn basic skills such as the “three R’s.” But for quite a few years, North Carolina’s colleges and universities have blurred the line between higher and basic education by admitting students who need remedial classes before they can handle college-level work.

Fortunately, several provisions moving through the General Assembly may change the face of remediation by shifting it back to lower levels of education where it belongs.

Evidence of the problem is clear. The community college system spends $24 million a year on remedial math, reading, and English courses. That’s because more than half of the 27,406 recent high school graduates who enrolled at a North Carolina community college during 2013-14 academic year enrolled in at least one developmental course during that academic year. Specifically, 41 percent took remedial math and 36 percent had to take remedial reading and English.

At UNC system schools, where admissions standards ensure that most students are prepared for college work, the problem is different. 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, at all but three UNC schools, 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. In part because of these policies, just 3,900 students in the UNC system took at least one remedial course in 2011-12.

But UNC also offers back door admission to students who don’t meet minimum requirements through “Summer Bridge Programs.” The programs, monitored by UNC General Administration and funded by the state, currently serve around 300 students per year across five UNC schools. As the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy’s Jesse Saffron wrote here, “the state is spending millions of dollars on a program that each year drives roughly 300 low-performing students into a four-year university, where they tend to earn poor grades, drop out, or otherwise fail to graduate within a reasonable period of time. That’s wasting taxpayer money and the time, effort, and resources of the students, faculty, and staff involved with the program.”

And it’s based on extremely wishful thinking rather than sound reasoning. It is a mistake to assume that a student who has fallen several years behind in primary and secondary education can not only catch up quickly but then can complete his or her college educations in the same time as their more prepared peers.

Furthermore, there is a hidden influence on higher education that occurs when colleges perform the remedial function: an erosion of firm standards. If substandard work is acceptable to get into college, then it may very well become acceptable to complete it as well.

With the negative impacts so glaring, and with so much to be gained by policy changes, the North Carolina legislature is finally addressing the problem. The House and Senate versions of the proposed state budget both move towards creating a UNC Guaranteed Admissions Program (UNC GAP).

The program would work by identifying students who satisfy UNC institutions’ official admissions criteria, but are academically weaker than their peers. These students would be given a promise of admission to the UNC schools to which they applied only after they have completed an associate degree at a North Carolina community college.

The goal of UNC GAP is to increase graduation rates, raise weaker students’ academic skills to college-ready level, and reduce costs to students and the state. Such a program could help to reduce the state’s overall spending per student. Right now, the state spends roughly $13,500 per full-time university student, but only $4,200 per full-time community college student.

The Senate budget also recommends increasing the minimum high school GPA required for admission to UNC system institutions to 3.0.

Legislators are also tackling remediation from the other direction—by taking a look at high schools. Senate Bill 561, which has already passed the Senate, would task the  State Board of Community Colleges, in consultation with the State Board of Education, with developing a program to address the high rate of remediation in the state. High school students whose skills fall below certain standards at the end of their junior year will be required to take “remedial” courses in their senior year, rather than taking such courses after graduation as they do now.

Moving remediation to high school instead of college has several major benefits. Several studies have found that students who enter college underprepared are much less likely to graduate than those who test at college‑ready levels. By preparing students before they get to college, this program ensures that they are more likely to graduate.

The program also saves money. High school students are already required to take four English and four math courses. This plan does not make a student in need of remediation take extra courses; it merely changes the courses they take in their senior year, at no additional cost. Thus, under the two proposed bills, the community college system spends less due to lower enrollments of remedial students, and North Carolina high schools spend the same amount that they do currently.

Not to mention that they will make a high school diploma more meaningful since it will finally certify that a graduate possesses adequate skills in reading and math.

Together, the two programs would help unprepared students get the developmental education they need as early as possible and direct students to programs that suit their academic skills. If enough students take advantage of the programs, we should see two results: an end to remediation and summer bridge at UNC schools and a steep decline in remediation at community colleges. The Senate budget anticipates this outcome and defunds summer bridge programs.

These are moves in the right direction. Remediation should occur as soon as a problem is identified, not postponed until the student enters college. The legislature deserves praise for tackling a longstanding problem head-on instead of kicking it down the road as has happened in the past.