State reviews remedial classes in college

College students who need a little extra help in certain subjects before they are able to take college level courses are at the center of a debate in state government that will decide whether four-year schools will be allowed to offer remedial, or so-called developmental courses, in the future.

Many of Louisiana’s universities have traditionally accepted students who are otherwise qualified for college-level courses, but are a little weak in math, science, reading or English. It’s a pretty standard way for schools to operate — accept students with potential and help them along in the areas where they are deficient.

Another school of thought says those students should be directed to enroll in community colleges until they are ready to transfer to a four-year school.

The thinking behind that strategy is that students would enter a four-year institution better prepared to complete a degree.

But national research suggests that approach costs students time and money without necessarily increasing their likelihood of earning a degree.

About 10 percent of students taking remedial classes earn associate’s degrees from community colleges within three years and slightly more than a third graduate from four-year schools in six years, according to a study by Complete College America, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit trying to increase college degree attainment.

How best to handle remedial courses is something that Louisiana’s higher education policy board, the state Board of Regents, has been grappling with for more than a decade.

One of the questions it has been considering is whether it’s most beneficial for students to take remedial courses alone, or take those courses while at the same time taking college-level work.

The Regents recently extended their remedial education pilot study program through the 2014-15 school year to take a closer look at the issue. The study, involving 700 students spread out across 15 institutions, was originally set to end next year.

The pilot study was a compromise between higher education leaders who don’t want four-year schools to offer too many remedial courses and college leaders who worry about enrollment declines as admission standards rise.

State Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell said in order to pick the best path forward for Louisiana, the Regents need more data.

“The one-year study was inconclusive,” he said. “We probably need two more years before we can determine whether offering college-level courses and developmental courses at the same time is as effective ... We don’t want to go to the Legislature and request changes if the data doesn’t support it.”

Purcell said he is in favor of taking a path that will result in students completing their degree in the shortest amount of time.

Many of the people who need to take developmental education also are dealing with adversity in their personal lives, he said.

“We used to think those students should take less courses,” Purcell said. “The information we have now says, the less time they spend in college, the better their completion rate. We need to accelerate the education process.”

However Louisiana decides to handle remedial education in the future will likely go a long way in determining how the state fares in academic outcomes compared to other states.

Hunter Boylan, director of the National Center for Developmental Education, said research shows that about 60 percent of high school graduates nationwide are under-prepared for college in one or more subject areas.

“If you look at the data, there are an awful lot of people who are going to need a little extra help,” Boylan said.

As an advocate for four-year schools offering remedial courses to students simultaneously with college-level courses, Boylan said the people who think students in need of remedial courses shouldn’t be allowed onto a four-year campus “have the wrong way of looking at it.”

“If 60 percent of students are under-prepared for college, there won’t be enough students to fill up all of these universities,” he said.

Boylan said schools actually need to take it a step further. He said four-year schools should offer increased support for students taking remedial courses, including extra tutoring and greater access to advisors.

The topic of remedial education has provoked strong reactions throughout Louisiana’s higher education community.

University of Louisiana System President Sandra Woodley believes the pilot study is a good idea, but flawed. Louisiana’s system of community colleges was created 14 years ago in 1999.

Woodley said she’s concerned that those schools are more focused on training students for mid-skill jobs such as paralegal work and medical assistant positions, and do not typically offer students the support services needed to complete remedial courses and then transfer to a four-year campus.

Woodley also said the remedial pilot study should be expanded to touch as many students as possible.

The program is being studied at the state’s community colleges and the so-called regional universities. This means that LSU, Louisiana Tech, the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and the University of New Orleans, which are known as “statewide” schools were all excluded from the study.

Woodley said thousands of students in the New Orleans who need some remedial work could benefit if UNO were allowed to participate.

She added that many of Louisiana’s two-year schools don’t offer students much in the way of student loans and financial aid, while four-year schools do. She cited that as proof that the pilot program is leaving a lot of people out.

Neil Matkin, executive vice president with the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, said the issue is about serving the students , many of whom are starting school with financial troubles. He said community colleges are set up to do just that.

“Why would you want to take the most at-risk students and put them on a university campus where they have to pay university prices to take developmental courses,” Matkin said. “We want to prepare students for success. For the students who are not quite college-ready, why send them to a higher cost environment.”