Paying Double Inadequate High Schools and Community College Remediation
Americans are beginning to recognize that many of the nation's high schools are in crisis, as policymakers, business leaders, and celebrities call attention to the country's low graduation rates. But the dropout problem, although severe, is only one indicator of the trouble plaguing the country's secondary schools.
Because too many students are not learning the basic skills needed to succeed in college or work while they are in high school, the nation loses more than $ 3.7 billion a year. This figure includes $ 1.4 billion to provide remedial education to students who have recently completed high school. In addition, this figure factors in the almost $ 2.3 billion that the economy loses because remedial reading students are more likely to drop out of college without a degree, thereby reducing their earning potential.
Of those who enter high school, only about 70 percent will graduate—one of the lowest rates among industrialized nations (Greene & Winters, 2006). As important, however, is the fact that, of those who do receive a diploma, only half are academically prepared for postsecondary education (Greene & Winters, 2005). A recent study of high school juniors and seniors taking the ACT college entrance exam confirms this; half of the students were ready for college-level reading assignments in core subjects like math, history, science, and English (ACT, 2006).
Despite these daunting statistics, the vast majority of America's high school students are optimistic about their prospects for the future, which they anticipate includes both higher education and rewarding careers. In fact, according to a recent national survey, an overwhelming 81 percent of high school students expect to attend college (High School Survey of Student Engagement, 2005). This is a wise goal, since 80 percent of the fastest-growing jobs in the United States require at least some postsecondary education, according to the U.S. Department of Labor (Hecker, 2005).
Playing Catch-Up: Getting the Knowledge and Skills Needed for College
When the increased demand for postsecondary education is coupled with the poor preparation many students receive in high school, it is perhaps not surprising that colleges and universities are being forced to offer, and often require, remedial courses to large numbers of students. These classes have the sole objective of teaching precollegiate subject matter.
Across the nation, 42 percent of community college freshmen and 20 percent of freshmen in four-year institutions enroll in at least one remedial course (NCES, 2004b). That is almost one-third of all freshmen. Community colleges already bear the greatest share of the remediation burden, and trends indicate that their responsibilities in this arena are likely to grow. For instance, eleven states have passed laws preventing or discouraging public four-year institutions from offering remedial courses to their students, thus concentrating unprepared students in community colleges (Jenkins & Boswell, 2002).
Analyses of students' preparation for college-level work show the weakness of core skills, such as basic study habits and the ability to understand and manage complicated material. The lack of preparation is also apparent in multiple subject areas; of college freshmen taking remedial courses, 35 percent were enrolled in math, 23 percent in writing, and 20 percent in reading (NCES, 2004b).
It is important to note that many students take remedial coursework for reasons having little to do with the failings of the nation's high schools. Community colleges have become a significant resource that offers opportunities to retrain laid-off workers, reeducate older students, and teach English to recent immigrants. Some of these enrollees are likely classified as "freshmen" and may be taking courses that are considered "remedial."
However, about half of all community college students are under the age of twentyfive (NCES, 2004c), and almost one-third of freshmen who take remedial courses are nineteen years old or younger (Phipps, 1998). Recent high school graduates are more likely to take remedial courses because higher percentages of them are pursuing bachelor's degrees, which require specified levels of preparation, than are older students. Additionally, younger students are more likely to be enrolled full-time than older students, and many community colleges do not require part-time students to enroll in remedial courses (Jenkins & Boswell, 2002).
Thus, the vast majority of students who take remedial courses in college do so to gain the skills and knowledge they should have gotten in high school and which are necessary for them to succeed in "regular" college classes. Most view the time, effort, and resources dedicated to remedial classes to be an additional investment in their academic futures.
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