Vast numbers of students enter community college remedial classes every year. Few are ever heard from again.
The odds for Thomas-Val’s students are indeed formidable. Only 60 percent of the community college’s 3,000 remedial students pass their classes with a C or higher. Those who go looking for help at Sacramento City will face a mélange of disconnected programs and services. The college’s academic counseling center is badly understaffed, and most of the tutoring available on campus is provided by other students. A recent state initiative provided some extra dollars for remediation, which the college spent adding student tutors and a few instructors here and there, in a process one administrator calls “hodge-podgey.” In such an environment, there are limits to what even a well-meaning professor like Thomas-Val, or her more enterprising students, can do.
Thomas-Val is standing astride what is perhaps the leakiest juncture in the pipeline of American higher education, a pipeline that has unquestionably seen better days. America is losing its lead in higher ed: while other countries are turning out ever increasing numbers of college graduates, the U.S. has stalled. But the problem isn’t just getting high school graduates into college—about 70 percent of them already enroll. It’s getting them to finish it. Only about half of American enrollees leave college with a degree, putting us behind at least ten other developed nations in educational attainment, according to a recent report by the Brookings Institution.
Where exactly we’re losing all of these students is unclear. But the best place to start looking is community college, and specifically those schools’ remediation programs. Nearly half of all students seeking college degrees start at community colleges, and of those, a large percentage—estimates put it around 60 percent—must take remedial classes. Remedial students run a high risk of dropping out and not graduating; one robust study found that only 30 percent complete all of their remedial math coursework, and fewer than one in four remedial students makes it all the way to completing a college degree. Students who need remediation drop out at worse rates than community college students who don’t, and the more remedial classes they need to take, the less likely they are to stay in school.
There’s a chicken-and-the-egg element to this, of course. Getting through two years of college is extremely hard for a student with fifth-grade skills—it may be too much to expect from many of them, even with the best help. So it’s difficult to tell what exactly the grim remedial statistics say: Is the gulf between the students’ abilities and the most basic requirements of college simply too wide? Or are the programs failing?
We don’t know, and therein lies the problem. Community college remediation is the Bermuda Triangle of the higher education system—vast numbers of students enter, and for all intents and purposes disappear. We have almost no hard evidence about what works and what doesn’t in remediation, and almost no one—policymakers, researchers, and administrators—has tried to figure it out in any systematic way. The reason for this is a combination of unjustly scant resources, huge gaps in data, and sometimes a sense of fatalism—or, worse, denial—that keeps state and school leaders from making it a priority. Meanwhile, the situation is likely to get worse before it gets better. Jobs requiring a college education are on the rise, and the labor market continues to pay a premium for college-educated workers. Students who wouldn’t have gone past high school a few decades ago are now heading to college—especially community college—but they’re not remotely prepared.
But this trend also offers real opportunities. Even if community college remediation programs can simply go from terrible outcomes to mediocre ones—if, for instance, the programs were able to meet the needs of even just the top half of remedial students—the aggregate nationwide impact could be an additional 150,000 college graduates per year.The Obama administration is aware of this potential, and is looking to community colleges to help the U.S. out of the economic crisis and meet our longer-term needs for more college graduates. In July, President Obama announced a new America Graduation Initiative that calls for an additional five million community college graduates by 2020.
Meeting this goal is a tall order. But too few policymakers are willing to take the first steps: stop trying to educate the most academically challenged students on the cheap, and insist on community colleges having a stake in whether or not their students succeed. The colleges that have already started to take this kind of responsibility show that such an investment can pay off. If we don’t fix the pipeline where it’s leaking most, even the best-laid plans for revitalizing the workforce with college graduates will amount to little.
Although 6.5 million undergrads attend them, community colleges have long held a marginal position in America’s higher education system. They receive less funding, less media attention, and fewer philanthropic gifts than their four-year cousins, even as they are saddled with the hard, messy job of delivering on the American promise that everyone who wants to should be able to go to college. While K–12 school systems and universities have clear missions, community colleges are simply tasked with doing everything the other systems don’t: getting underprepared students ready for universities, providing job-specific training and certificates, and offering a wide range of basic education for adults—everything from English to word processing to physical education.
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