A report on improving remedial education at University of Wisconsin System campuses sparked a debate Friday at a regents meeting about who bears responsibility for students who aren’t academically prepared for college, and whether those students are set up to fail just by admitting them to four-year campuses.

The debate doesn’t just center around high school students.

University of Wisconsin System is boosting efforts to help adults who started college, but never finished, earn their degrees. Many of these adults also will need refresher courses so they can do college-level math.

Regent Tim Higgins, speaking at the board’s meeting at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, noted some students need more remediation than what UW campuses can provide. “Why are these students drawn into our UW system with so little chance of success?” he asked.

Students who complete remedial math and English classes within their first year of college typically do as well or better than students who don’t require remedial courses. But Higgins cited UW data that show only 25 percent of students in remediation get it done.

Campuses collect tuition from unprepared students in the form of federal and private loans, but many of those students will leave with the debt and no degree, Higgins said.

He requested a report from UW System that is “realistic about academic and financial considerations” for students admitted to UW campuses who aren’t academically prepared for college-level coursework.

“The bill for remedial education should be sent back to the schools that did not prepare them,” Regent Margaret Farrow said, noting she previously has said that remediation should be a discussion with officials overseeing K-12 education.

‘Building another empire’

UW System has been studying and tracking remedial education in the system for 23 years.

The percentage of students placed in remedial education in UW System has been relatively constant the past five years, with 24.5 percent of UW freshmen in the fall of 2012 requiring some form of remedial education.

That figure is on par with national averages. Further breaking it down, 20.7 percent of UW freshmen in the fall of 2012 required some math remediation, 9.9 percent required some English remediation and 6.1 percent required both, according to UW officials.

New efforts

Regent Tony Evers, state superintendent of public instruction, said reform efforts K-12 education is undergoing now are connected to higher education.

Those efforts include finding the best way to evaluate teachers with respect to student performance, a data-driven early warning system to intervene and develop academic plans for lagging students, and examining the rigors of teacher preparation, Evers told fellow regents.

Farrow said she was concerned that the UW System was “building another empire within the university system that we can’t afford and students can’t afford.”

“I don’t think this is the answer to getting students in and through the UW System with success,” she said.

Farrow suggested that tests to determine placement in college classes for math and English be given at the start of the senior year of high school, rather than the summer before students start college, “so they get a rude awakening” before they’re committed to a four-year university.

Regent Jose Vasquez agreed with Farrow that strengthening remediation efforts did not mean lowering or “watering down” admissions standards.

Instead, Vasquez said, the goal is to help students who have met entrance requirements so they can succeed. Increasing the number of college degree holders is vital to the future of Wisconsin’s workforce, he said.

Vasquez stressed the need to “very early, clearly identify” which students need math and English remediation so they can be prepared for college-level work.