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Remediation: Higher ed's expensive 'bridge to nowhere'

More than a third of incoming college students in Michigan take high school-level classes on campus -- essentially repeating material they should have learned before they got their diplomas.

Those remedial classes may cost students, schools and taxpayers more than $100 million a year, and often don’t lead to a degree; many of the 23,000 students taking remedial courses each year drop out before they ever take an actual college-credit course, and few graduate.

Those sobering statistics raise uncomfortable questions for the state: How ready are Michigan students for college in a world where a degree is virtually a prerequisite for the middle class? And in its drive to increase degrees, does the state need to pay twice, once in high school and once in college, for students to learn algebra?

Michigan's numbers daunting

College readiness wouldn’t matter if Michigan was producing enough college graduates. But a Bridge Magazine analysis projected that by 2018, more than 37 percent of jobs will require a bachelor’s degree or more, compared to 29 percent today.

Previous coverage
on college readiness

Ready for college? In Michigan, likely not.

Michigan's 'Faltering 40' on college prep

A decade of slipping: Michigan's students fall behind

Parsing the 3 R's: rigor, responsibility, readiness

The percentage of high school graduates enrolling in universities and community colleges is increasing, but many aren’t academically prepared to succeed. About 35 percent of Michigan high school grads who enroll directly into one of the state's four-year or community colleges take at least one remedial course, according to state data.

Those remedial (also called developmental) courses are intended to pull students up to college level. But most students never make it that far.

Nationally, about 40 percent of incoming college students enrolled in remedial courses drop out before ever taking a college-level course. Only one in 10 earn an associate’s degree in three years, and 30 percent earn a bachelor’s degree in six years.

A new report released by Complete College America, a national organization that works with state governments to increase graduation rates, calls college remediation a “broken system.”

“It was hoped that remediation programs would be an academic bridge from poor high school preparation to college readiness,” the report states. “Sadly, remediation has become, instead, higher education’s ‘bridge to nowhere.’”

“Most kids who go in to remedial programs don’t get out of them,” said Larry Good, chairman of the Corporation for a Skilled Workforce based in Ann Arbor. “It becomes a dead-end. Those are numbers that have to change if the overall numbers (for college graduation) are going to move.”

The problem is most severe in Michigan’s community colleges, where 62 percent of incoming students start out in remedial classes. Few of them end up with a degree. Only 15 percent earn a two-year associate’s degree within three years, a rate that is sixth worst in the nation. (Michigan’s six-year bachelor’s degree completion rate is 55 percent, slightly below the national average.)

Among students enrolled in community colleges and Michigan’s public universities, 27 percent don’t make it past their freshman year.  State data doesn’t specify how many of those dropouts were among the 35 percent who took remedial courses, but they likely make up a large chunk.

“Clearly, the chances of completing a degree are not as good for those who start in developmental courses,” said Mike Hansen, president of the Michigan Community College Association. “It’s extra time and money students have to spend before they start their college degrees.”

At EMU, a surge in remedial work

At Eastern Michigan University, the percentage of freshmen taking remedial courses has jumped from 4.8 percent in 2004 to 17.2 percent in 2011. Rhonda Longworth, EMU’s interim associate provost, says the remedial course increase is a confluence of two factors -- more students enrolling in college, and the typical student possibly being less prepared.

“Part of it is the quality of (academics) being provided (in high schools), and part is the courses they’re choosing to take,” Longworth said. Too often, students goof off during their senior years, figuring their college admission is based on their GPA and ACT taken in their junior years.

“A lot of these skills, if you don’t use them, they get rusty,” Longworth said.

At Western Michigan University, about 9 percent of incoming freshmen take remedial classes.

By contrast, the University of Michigan and Michigan Tech don’t even offer remedial courses. (Editor's note: Remedial data for the rest of Michigan's 15 public universities was not available.)

Sometimes, colleges accept students who are academically acceptable in most areas, but weak in one or two. “Our admissions are based on cumulative (ACT) scores,” explains Longworth. “But our class placement is based on subsection scores, such as math or science.” Rather than reject the student, the school offers remedial classes to bring them up to speed.

Degrees equal bigger salaries

Remedial courses are not a new phenomenon, but they’re getting more attention now because of the push to increase the number of college grads, Hansen said.

“Our mission is changing from (college) access to (degree) completion,” Hansen said. “Having that sheepskin is important for future income.”

A person with an associate’s degree will earn, on average, $270,000 more than a high school graduate over a lifetime; Make it a bachelor’s degree, and the difference is almost $900,000.

That extra income, in turn, provides more income tax to the state, which can provide more services to residents.

“When I went to school, nobody cared if I completed -- that was my responsibility,” Hansen said. “Today, there’s a lot more attention and concern not just that the door (to college) is open, but that people leave with a credential.”

All sorts of high-schoolers need remedial help

Even at the state’s most academically successful high schools, some graduates require remedial classes in college. Graduates of the Troy School District score as “college ready” on the ACT at more than double the state rate; yet almost one in five grads who enroll in a Michigan public college take at least one remedial class. At West Bloomfield, 29 percent take remedial classes; at East Grand Rapids, it’s 16 percent.

See how your school district is faring in college remedial classes

Nineteen districts have less than 5 percent of their college-going students taking remedial courses. Most are small, rural schools where a couple of kids taking or not taking remedial classes can swing the rates. But sizable districts such as Orchard View and Fruitport on the state’s west side and Houghton-Portage in the Upper Peninsula are on the low-remedial list.

At Schoolcraft High School, south of Kalamazoo, less than 3 percent of graduates attending a Michigan public college take remedial courses.

“It is the most important piece for us, to make sure kids are prepared for that next chapter, college and work readiness,” said Schoolcraft Superintendent Rusty Stitt. “It’s very challenging for these kids, with all this global competitiveness that you and I didn’t have to live with.”

Schoolcraft is more the exception than the rule. In 107 districts, half or more of college-going graduates take remedial courses; in 13 districts, including Dowagiac Union on the west side and Westwood in Dearborn Heights, it’s more than 75 percent.

Remedial courses cost taxpayers money. An analysis conducted by the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, estimated that remedial classes costs $3.6 billion a year nationally, with the cost in Michigan alone estimated at $114 million. LINK

That estimate is based on the percentage of in-coming students taking remedial courses, average course-load and average tuition.

Mitch Bean, former director of the House Fiscal Agency*, is skeptical of such estimates, because funding is not tied to particular students or classes. If students weren’t taking remedial classes, they’d be taking more regular, for-credit college classes, thus not saving the state any money, Bean said.

Still, every class at Michigan’s public universities and community colleges is subsidized by the state. That means some part of the cost of remedial education ends up being passed on to the taxpayer, who ends up paying twice to teach a student a particular subject. That cost is high enough that some states, includingOhio, are moving to defund remedial classes.

Ohio will begin phasing out state support for remediation at four-year universities in 2014, and eliminate it altogether by 2020. “The degree (to which) it’s happening right now is far too great and far too expensive,” Ohio Board of Regents spokesperson Kim Norris told the Hechinger Report in December.

Thirteen other states have restricted funding for remedial courses at public higher education institutions. Michigan legislators haven’t suggested such a move here.

“I understand why legislators look at that -- they look at themselves as stewards of taxpayer funds,” Longworth said. “From our perspective, you have to look at the importance of developing a qualified workforce. I have to look at the reality of the population we’re working with, and their ability to adapt.

“We have to find a way to move people forward,” Longworth said. “The answer is to get an education system that is working together, where transitions (between high school and college) are less distinct, where they have the goal of keeping people moving.”

Senior Writer Ron French joined Bridge in 2011 after having won more than 40 national and state journalism awards since he joined the Detroit News in 1995. French has a long track record of uncovering emerging issues and changing the public policy debate through his work. In 2006, he foretold the coming crisis in the auto industry in a special report detailing how worker health-care costs threatened to bankrupt General Motors.

* Mitch Bean is a member of the Bridge Board of Advisers.

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