A shocking 70 percent of new students at Normandale Community College in Bloomington need to enroll in one or more remedial math courses before proceeding to college-credit work. More than half need remedial work in writing.
The result, said Normandale President Joseph Opatz in a visit to the Star Tribune last week, is that students seeking "two-year" associate degrees are often on campus a good deal longer. That means they run up higher tuition bills and state financial aid costs, and contribute to overcrowding at the state's largest community college. For some students, the extra burden of remedial classes is too heavy to bear. They drop out, risking a permanent pinch in their earning power.
Opatz is a former DFL legislator who knows well the strain that state higher education appropriations will be under as the nation endures another recession. Educators and lawmakers will be looking for more efficiency from public educational systems. A clear place to look is at high school classes that purport to prepare students for college work, but too often fall short.
In many parts of the country, community colleges are bursting at the seams as demand for their product soars. Normandale will serve nearly 14,000 students this year, a 36 percent increase since 2000. Meeting that demand will require greater use of online learning and, at least at Normandale, additional classroom space, Opatz said. But online study isn't optimal for students needing remedial help, and classrooms at community colleges shouldn't be built to accommodate learning that should have happened in high school.
Opatz, who served as a St. Cloud legislator and is beginning his second year at Normandale, is an advocate for closer connections between high schools and community colleges. In some places, such connections are already flourishing. For example, Century College in White Bear Lake has a Tech Prep program that brings college-level technical classes to more than a dozen high schools. At Central Lakes College in Brainerd and Staples, where Opatz served as a vice president before coming to Normandale, community college faculty bring college-credit instruction into high school buildings.
Such programs lay a foundation for better understanding on the part of high school teachers and students of what college-level work requires. But alone, they may not do enough -- not as a growing share of the population recognizes that a secure place in the American workforce no longer can be obtained with a high school diploma alone. The Legislature should consider employing financial carrots and sticks to make high schools function as "preparatory schools," as they once were called, for all their students.