Vast numbers of students enter community college remedial classes every year. Few are ever heard from again.
As the level of education students brought with them to community college fell, the colleges began leaning more and more heavily on their remediation classes. As the number of students needing remediation increased, so too did the number of classes, faculty, and support services outside of class to help them. But the system developed in piecemeal fashion at most campuses, incorporating disconnected programs and disparate pots of money over the years. The programs have gotten bigger, but not better, suffering a particularly acute form of the neglect and vagueness of mission that plagues the community college system as a whole.
To make matters worse, most colleges haven’t spent a lot of time examining just how well their remedial programs are working. Lacking the kind of testing systems found in K–12, community colleges can’t systematically determine how much students are learning in remedial education or pinpoint areas of weakness in the courses. Many regular college faculty just try to ignore the problem, while remedial instructors are often adjunct faculty rather than tenured or full-time professors. They’re sometimes called “freeway fliers” because they cobble together jobs at multiple colleges; even the most committed among them have limited time for students and few opportunities to improve their own teaching.
Colleges offer support services like drop-in tutoring and academic counseling for remedial students, but they don’t do enough to encourage students to use them, and the students—who tend to be passively engaged in their education, and aren’t used to advocating for themselves—often don’t seek them out. Even if more students did take advantage of the services, many colleges wouldn’t have the resources to provide them, and the quality of the help in many cases is spotty. At Sacramento City College, the student-to-counselor ratio is reportedly 900 to 1, and some students told me they’d just as soon ask their friends for advice on what courses to take.
The maze of remediation programs and services worsens what is already a harsh environment for community college students, who are in many cases the first in their families to attend college and arrive on campus with little notion of how to navigate the educational bureaucracy. Students commute to school, and many attend part-time and sign up for classes online without consulting anyone from the college. They also forge few relationships with their classmates. “I drive to school, go to class, and leave,” says Nadine Brown, a student from Sacramento who’s tried two different community colleges so far. “That’s about it.” The lack of stickiness makes it easy for students to slip away, and often drop out for good. No one calls to say, “What happened to you?”
Community colleges have little incentive to do better, thanks to poorly structured state policies. Colleges receive funding based on the number of students that enroll, rather than the number that actually complete courses or graduate—helping students get over the remediation hurdle costs schools money, but doesn’t get them any more of it from state coffers.
In the absence of leadership, California’s community college system has developed an inertia all its own. The stakeholders with the greatest influence on the schools’ governance are the multiple employee associations and unions that have a natural interest in maintaining the status quo. These groups have generally resisted state-led efforts to standardize practices or change the way community colleges do their business, bristling at the idea of being compared—much less penalized—on the basis of student outcomes.
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