Tiara Carr was stunned when she was placed in a remedial writing course at St. Paul College last fall. After all, she had taken college-level classes in high school.
It was more than a blow to her ego. She would have to spend time — and hundreds of dollars in tuition — on a refresher class that won’t count toward her degree or, in her words, “get me any closer to graduation.”
This month, she took her story to the Legislature as part of a growing national movement to try to eliminate such “basic skills” courses in college.
While the idea is gaining support among lawmakers, educators at Minnesota’s community colleges say it would be a prescription for disaster for many struggling students.
“You can’t take somebody who reads at junior high reading level, throw them into the deep end of the pool and say, ‘OK, swim,’ ” said Laurel Watt, who teaches remedial reading and study skills at Inver Hills Community College. “And that’s what this bill [does.]”
Last year, more than 40,000 Minnesota students were placed in remedial classes, mainly at community colleges, after tests showed they weren’t up to snuff in math, reading or writing. In all, more than a quarter of Minnesota high school graduates end up taking at least one remedial course in college, according to state data.
Reformers argue that the placement tests are flawed and that such classes, while well-intentioned, often backfire on students like Carr, making it less likely that they’ll ever finish college.
Now, they’re asking legislators to scrap the remedial-education system at Minnesota’s state colleges and universities, saying those students would be better off in “real” college-level courses that offer some extra help, such as tutors.
“Our goal ultimately is to save students time and money,” said Kenneth Eban of Students for Education Reform, which is promoting the change.
Dealing with dropout rate
For years, many colleges have offered what they call “developmental education” to fill the gaps that students bring to class. The credits, though, don’t count toward graduation; they’re just a steppingstone to get into the courses they need.
The problem, say critics, is that many of those students never make it past the remedial courses.
The result is an astronomical dropout rate — nationwide, only about 10 percent end up graduating, according to Bruce Vandal, vice president of Complete College America. His group, which is funded by the Gates Foundation, has been lobbying across the country to reform remedial education, which it calls a “bridge to nowhere.”
“It’s not so much that they can’t learn the material,” Vandal testified at a recent legislative hearing in St. Paul. Often, he said, the students simply get discouraged and drop out, especially if they’re forced to take (and pay for) “long sequences” of remedial classes.
“They’ll throw up their hands and give up,” he said.
His solution: replace remedial classes with “co-requisites” — college-level courses that meet degree requirements, but also provide tutors or extra class time for those who need it.
So far, five states have adopted a version of this in the last two years, with impressive results, according to Vandal. In Indiana, for example, the rate of students completing a college-level math class more than doubled, from 29 to 64 percent, he said. And that was in just one semester. “We’re talking about a profound improvement,” he said.
Who gains? Who pays?
But skeptics say that, while some students may flourish in such courses, others will drown. “Our two-year colleges are open access,” said Pakou Yang, director of college readiness at the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system. “So students come to us from all walks of life. Some of them very prepared, and some of them very unprepared.
“It’s that bottom group of students that we’re concerned about.”
Another concern is cost: Officials estimate that such a change could cost $40 million over the next four years; and it’s not clear whether the colleges would be able to recoup those costs.
Watt, who has taught remedial reading and writing at Inver Hills for 24 years, worries about what will be lost. Most of her students, she says, need more than a part-time tutor to succeed in college.
“I’m not teaching students how to read,” she told legislators at the hearing. “I’m teaching students how to read college-level material.”
She readily concedes that some students in remedial ed probably don’t need that level of intensity and would thrive in a co-requisite class. But the rest, she fears, “are not going to be successful.”
On a recent Monday morning, Watt led nine students in a surprisingly lively discussion about what not to put in a college essay in a class called Introduction to College Reading and Writing.
“Take out your red pens,” Watt said, as she handed out a practice essay and asked them to mark up the trouble spots. “When you start a sentence with ‘I think,’ you’re not being as bold as you want to be,” she told them. “In academic writing, you need to be bold!”
Pros and cons
Gabriella Pinto, one of the students, said she’s grateful for the refresher class. “The last course I took in college was eight years ago,” she said. “So I think a class like this is very helpful for people in my situation.”
For some, it’s not their first time in remedial education. Joyce Crump said she took a similar class at St. Paul College, and initially thought it was “a waste of money and time.” But not anymore. “This class is helping out with my writing, because I’ve never been a good writer,” she said.
Shaynice Flemming, who also took the class once before, said she’s getting far more out of it this time. “I’ve gotten better on my papers for each of my classes,” she said. “It has helped me way more, not only in my writing but my vocabulary.”
David Arendale, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota who studies remedial education, says that many colleges — including in Minnesota — are experimenting with ways to improve and streamline remedial programs.
But he’s skeptical of attempts to do away with it entirely. The research, he said, suggests there is no one-size-fits-all solution.
“If they’re talking about the students at the top … I would agree,” he said. In a co-requisite class, “they’ll just be fine.”
But, he adds, “I’ve not seen research that says you can go to the middle and the bottom [tiers] and those students will do fine.”
At this point, he says, it’s worth being cautious.
“Why don’t we do a small pilot at a couple of colleges before we propose doing this statewide?”