Tackling the remedial classes problem

In my previous blog, I suggested that the United States’ regional accrediting organisations could help resolve the unfortunate misalignment between the bulk of the nation’s secondary schools and tertiary institutions.

Secondary school students are graduating with relatively high grade point averages, or GPAs. Presumably, they should be better prepared for the rigours of tertiary curricula.

Unfortunately, this presumption has not been validated on their admission to tertiary institutions.

Survey data reported in January 2013 suggests that the full spectrum of institutions, from the very selective to the open admission-based, are offering remedial courses to prepare significant percentages of their intakes for the demands of their chosen institution’s curriculum.

The US Department of Education’s National Center for Educational Statistics recently reported the results of a survey of first-year undergraduates taking remedial coursework in the 2007-08 academic year. Nearly 26% of respondents from four-year open-admission institutions reported taking remedial courses. Approximately 13% of first-year students at very selective institutions reported taking remedial coursework.

Superficially, providing remedial courses appears to be a logical response. In reality, these courses at the tertiary level poorly serve students while perpetuating the misalignment problem.

When ill-prepared students are admitted and shunted into remedial coursework, the time to complete their degrees is extended. Moreover, they are a burden, with additional tuition and fees and out-of-pocket expenses to be paid and possible loss of income.

In the case of public institutions, the state’s taxpayers are charged twice. They are charged for the apparent inadequate public secondary school instruction. Subsequently, they are charged for the remedial instruction at tertiary level. Thus, students, their parents and the state’s economy are short changed.

Long-term answers

What is the long-term solution to this costly misalignment? Could one answer lie in better coordination between individual secondary schools and tertiary institutions, as Ernest Boyer, former United States commissioner of education, suggested decades ago?

I suggest not. There are too many institutions involved for an effective and efficient solution at the crossover between individual schools and higher education institutions. There are nearly 4,500 tertiary institutions and 10 times that number of secondary schools.

A more effective and efficient long-term solution may lie with the US’ six accrediting organisations. Each is responsible for a regional grouping of states. Each oversees subordinate organisations responsible for validating quality assurance and possible accreditation of secondary schools and tertiary institutions within their geographical jurisdiction.

With that structure each has the potential to promote regionwide alignment among all secondary schools and tertiary institutions. By refining existing standards to encourage regionwide coordination, the nationwide misalignment could be resolved for the benefit of all constituencies.

Pima case does not bode well

Unfortunately, a recent decision by the North Central Association of Schools and Colleges, one of the US’ six regional accrediting organisations, does not bode well for this possible solution.

In early April, Pima Community College in Tucson, Arizona, was placed on two years’ probation. The association’s Higher Learning Commission found that Pima was in violation of a number of its standards.

While only one of the stated violations relates to this misalignment issue, it suggests that the North Central Association is reluctant to provide the needed leadership and arbitration.

The association’s Higher Learning Commission found that Pima’s new policy requiring applicants seeking admission to its certificate and degree programmes to demonstrate the ability to benefit was inconsistent with its responsibility to serve its community.

Pima’s stated justification for filtering direct admission to its certificate and diploma programmes appeared to be both based on Arizona law governing community colleges, and bolstered by compelling institutional data.

Arizona law states that citizens demonstrating evidence of the potential to succeed and the ability to benefit should be admitted.

With 35% of its intake not reading at a college-entry level and 51% not meeting Pima’s writing standards, its open-admissions policy was clearly not sufficient. Moreover, 89% of its intake of recent high school graduates was not ready for college mathematics.

The college was spending US$20 million per year on requisite remedial courses. Using its 2004 intake, Pima noted that of students taking the lowest-level remedial reading course, only 2.2% had taken a college-level reading course and 6.1% had taken any college-level course by autumn 2006.

Pima’s proposed admissions criteria to its certificate and diploma programmes were hardly draconian. In addition to an 18-year-old age requirement and high school diploma or GED certificate, it intended to require all applicants to its certificate and diploma programmes to sit an ability-to-benefit examination.

Pima’s admissions policy revision was one of a package of concerns on which the Higher Learning Commission based its probation decision. With its students’ access to federal financial aid programmes tied to regional accreditation, it is not surprising that Pima has pledged to resolve all of the commission’s concerns, including what appeared to be a well-reasoned response to an obvious ability-to-benefit challenge.

If not the North Central Association, it is hoped that a least one of the other associations will assume leadership in resolving this long-standing misalignment problem.

* William Patrick Leonard is vice dean of SolBridge International School of Business in Daejeon, Republic of Korea.