College Guide


August 20, 2009 12:33 PM Higher Ed’s Bermuda Triangle

Vast numbers of students enter community college remedial classes every year. Few are ever heard from again.

By Camille Esch

Faced with all this, even well-meaning community college personnel often evince a fatalism about their work, focusing more on students’ deficiencies and who’s to blame—the K–12 system, poverty, bad parents—than on what the college can do about them. “Community colleges are open access,” one Sacramento City College administrator told me. “Students can come here whether or not we have courses that are appropriate for them. We get students who can’t read. That blows me away! My curriculum is not designed to teach someone how to read.”

But despite the seemingly intractable nature of the remediation problem, some community colleges are managing to achieve a measure of success. A decade ago, a small group of faculty and administrators at Chaffey College, a large school serving primarily minority students in Rancho Cucamonga, California, grew alarmed at the rising remediation needs of incoming students, 70 percent of whom were placing below college level. Realizing that underprepared students were now the norm rather than the exception, the Chaffey team decided to revamp their entire approach to remediation, first by throwing out the word itself—opting for “foundational skills” instead—and by rethinking it as a schoolwide approach that extended beyond a particular subset of classes. They also framed the entire mission as a “moral imperative” for their college. “We decided not to talk about whose fault it is, because it doesn’t matter,” says Laura Hope, interim dean of instructional support at Chaffey. “That discussion is a waste of time.”

Armed with this notion of responsibility to, rather than simply tolerance of, underprepared students, the group shut down Chaffey’s old-style tutoring center, where students went for help only once they’d started to fail and which focused on helping students get past a particular essay or test, rather than learning skills that could be transferred to new situations. Instead, the college opened several centers that offered students supplementary lessons and learning activities that were linked to the students’ actual class work and were codeveloped by the classes’ instructors. The idea was to extend the reach of the classroom and offer extra instruction that faculty members simply didn’t have time to do themselves—a far more coordinated and intensive approach than the typical drop-in tutoring.

There was some resistance from the “recalcitrant tribal elders,” says Hope—another faculty member described them as “old dinosaurs who would rather bitch about their students”—but it didn’t take long for lots of faculty members to buy into the idea. For once, teachers could reach out to someone else on campus for help with specific problems they had in the classroom.

In the state’s official progress report, Chaffey does not stand out as a superstar. But one outside researcher found that Chaffey—which has the ninth largest remedial population in California’s community college system—was improving more than almost any other college in the state when it comes to getting students through remediation and into regular college-level courses. That rate has steadily improved by over 2 percent annually, meaning an additional 150 students make it through to college-level classes each year. The vast majority of colleges have been stagnant on this measure, or even slid back a bit, but Chaffey has made steady progress in the right direction—a real victory in what is sure to be a long war.

It’s unreasonable to hold community colleges responsible for moving every incoming student with fifth-grade skills toward graduation. What we can reasonably aim for, however, is a system in which more schools perform like Chaffey—in which the schools that currently do the best job of approaching those goals are the standard, rather than the exception. If all of California’s community colleges were improving at the same rate as Chaffey, 25,000 more students would pass into college-level classes over two years’ time. It’s not a sea change, but it’s nothing to sneeze at, either.

Community colleges don’t have an obligation to work miracles, but they do have an obligation to do better—to ensure quality teaching and academic counseling, to pay close attention to student outcomes, to try new approaches when the old ones obviously aren’t working. States and college systems have an obligation to push community colleges that are less enthusiastic than Chaffey to embrace this mindset, by adopting policies that reward innovation, penalize complacency, and require transparent measurement of student performance.

Increasingly, it seems, the federal government is taking this view. So far, Obama’s higher education initiatives are focused on the right things: more resources for community colleges, a focus on completion, strengthening data and research, and improving remedial education for underprepared students. His American Graduation Initiative proposal calls for an unprecedented federal investment in community colleges—$12 billion over the next decade—by way of grants to innovative states and colleges and support for much-needed infrastructure, including research and facilities. A related report from Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers went further, recommending that postsecondary programs and institutions “should have an incentive to continually improve and should be held accountable for their results.” Obama has also made a smart move by naming a well-respected former California community college chancellor, Martha J. Kanter, as his undersecretary of education.

Camille Esch directs the California Education Program at the New America foundation, a nonpartisan public policy think tank. This project was done with the assistance of an associate fellowship with Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media.


  • Kendall Morris on September 04, 2009 9:20 PM:

    This is a really interesting article Camille. Nice work! I would love to talk with you about an initiative I'm working on with Social Media Club for higher level education. I think it may be of interest to you.

    Great to see all of your hard work in Mr. Ward's english classes paid off! He'd be happy to see what you are doing now.

  • Philip Daly on September 21, 2009 1:39 AM:

    p>Ms. Esch makes many interesting points in her article, but her conclusions, I'm afraid, are far off base. To suggest that the CA Community College System is somehow primarily a launching pad for four-year institutions is to have taken a very cursory look at the topic you are writing about...many students enter to complete a certificate program, complete a single class for employment skills, etc. and are never entering with the objective of earning an AA degree. To suggest that only 50% of students earning a degree is equal to 50% failure is a gross misrepresentation. A better statistic would have been the percentage of students who complete their initial educational objective while at the college; data which IS kept at Sacramento City College.

    Moreover, while citing the diminished job CA high schools are doing in preparing students for higher ed, Ms. Esch doesn't trace the stats to see why. She suggests that there is resistance to standardized testing at the post-secondary level but fails to acknowledge that the introduction of the "high-stakes" tests in CA's K-12 system has led to reduction in actual performance. For more on this, see Alfie Kohn's: THE CASE AGAINST STANDARDIZED TESTING (Heinemann 2000) From reading this article, one almost gets the impression that Esch has taken standardized testing as the educational panacea it so often gets portrayed as, without researching its actual effectiveness or the history of how it came into play on the National (read NCLB) stage (hint: it started in Texas!)

    Finally, I can say from experience that MANY of my former students went to CA Community Colleges directly from the same types of "low-income" backgrounds that Esch describes in the article. Several had the same types of linguistic and mathematical challenges upon arrival, and I cannot think of a single one who did not go on to achieve their educational objectives there. While I agree wholeheartedly with Esch's analysis of the funding discrepancies between CA's community college and 4-yr. institutions, in these times, the CC's are doing even more with even less. The may not be the Stanford of Esch's own academic pedigree, but these schools are hardly a "Bermuda Triangle!"

  • Joe on September 22, 2009 1:13 PM:

    I'll be honest. I'm 23. I'm a product of the California public school system who left California for college and grad school, and I have hundreds, if not literally thousands, of friends and acquaintances who've gone through California's community colleges, Cal States, and UCs.

    I have some bad news for you.

    The vast majority of California community college students?

    They're really. F#@!ing. Dumb.

    We're not talking 'disadvantaged minds yearning to learn if you show them the possibilities' here.

    We're talking dumb as rocks.

    Not only that, they are *aggressively* dumb.

    There is no sense of shame. No sense of missed possibilities and opportunities to be made up for. It's "This is boring, I'm not interested, when can I get the hell out of here and hit the bar with my friends?"

    Their parents, usually, aren't affluent. But life at home is workable. There usually isn't a struggle to put food on the table. There's zero sense that life is offering them a challenge they need to rise to.

    I had plenty of friends in high school who couldn't go to college because they lacked the grades and were poorly motivated, but then straightened themselves up for community college.

    What they found when they got there was a system that was mind-numbingly easy. Straight A's every semester, no questions asked. An easy-peasy pathway into one of the UCs when it came time to transfer.

    They were bowled over both by how easy it all was, and the fact that the mouth-breathers around them still seemed challenged by the content.

    The problem doesn't stop once you transfer to a UC, either.

    One of my friends transferred from community college to UCSB... and found the student body and the ease of the coursework was almost equally bad there.

    In a quiz for his Latin American history class, having forgotten the answer to one of the questions about 70s Brazilian Presidents, he scribbled in "Sean Connery" for fun and turned in the test.

    The next day, an e-mail from the teacher was waiting for him in his inbox; report to my office immediately. He expected he'd be chewed out for goofing off a bit with an exam question he couldn't answer. Instead, he was accused of plagiarism; the students sitting around him knew that he was one of the rare few who actually did the class readings, and had copied his 'Sean Connery' answer (along with all his others) without a second thought. This story is neither uncommon nor exceptional among my peers.

    Seriously, the problem here isn't a lack of funding for remedial ed.

    The problem is that as a society we've morphed into a combo of a declining Rome and the movie Idiocracy's dystopian future.

    The California community college system works absolutely fine for any student who actually gives a damn. The vast majority of them don't.

  • Micah on September 23, 2009 7:27 PM:

    I see nowhere in Ms. Esch's article that she presents standardized testing as a panacea. She also argues for measuring colleges based on students' performance toward their educational goals as does Mr. Daly.

    A less defensive reading of the article would probably have produced a more constructive response. Though the comment is valuable in that it displays the sort of defensive attitude that Ms. Esch reports on in the article. If Mr. Daly cannot think of a single student who did not achieve their educational objectives at a community college, then he clearly has no experience with community colleges and his comments should be disregarded entirely. Not a single student? Think harder.

  • David on September 29, 2009 8:22 PM:

    Thank you, Micah. I thought for a moment that Philip Daly was commenting on a different article. Yes, many community college students are not there to pursue a four year degree. The colleges also offer vocational and technical programs that provide (or at least have in the past) solid skills to move into jobs where a college degree is not necessary. This dual role of community colleges is great for students and can benefit the community.

    But there are also risks associated with this dual role. It makes it easy for someone like Philip Daly, along with a lot of CC administrators, to assert that everything is fine by assuming that the students who don't successfully go on to a four-year college weren't really attending with that intention anyway.

    There are risks for students, too. Although some community college students are eligible for university admission and choose the CC for convenience and cost reasons, many are not. These students were typically not on the college track in high school, or attended high school long ago. They might aspire to a college degree without fully understanding what is involved (think of media depictions of college students - how often are they portrayed as actually studying, as opposed to partying?). So there's a tendency for students to just kind of wander through some courses without a plan. And no, Joe, they aren't all aggressively dumb. They're more like I was when I got my first beater of a car and it broke down. Sure, I felt kind of dumb standing there with the hood open and holding a screwdriver, but it was more a case of good intentions, but no clue as to how to proceed. I suspect that a lot of students are in a similar situation with academics.

    It is notoriously hard to determine success if it isn't clear what goal you are trying to achieve. That's true of students, and it's also true of the colleges. It seems to me that putting some resources and effort into defining or clarifying goals would benefit both students and the colleges. There are solid vocational programs that don't require college-level writing skills, for example. Making an effort to interact with new students to help them set realistic goals helps them succeed, and could reduce the burden on remediation programs in the process.

  • robin on October 06, 2009 10:02 AM:

    If students are Coming In with 5th grade abilities, it is not the fault of the higher education system. They should not have gotten their high-school diploma in the first place. It is the job of K-12 to ensure that people are actually literate and understand the basic concepts of math, science, geography and history.
    The value of a high-school diploma has fallen because it no longer guarantees the person is able to read, so employers have looked at other credentials. In consequence, more people go to college in order to get credentials which 'prove' their literacy. Many of those people don't want to be at college nor should they be. Colleges, naturally, have responded by increasingly lowering their standards to combat their drop-out rate (and if a cynic to keep the money). But they will never be able to drop their standards low enough, nor should they.

  • Ray Radlein on October 08, 2009 4:40 PM:

    I have taught remedial classes in the community/technical college system in South Carolina where lesson one on day one was "how to add two (positive!) numbers together" — arguably as remedial a start as it is possible to get in a post-secondary education environment — and saw none of what is described in this article.

    My students were attentive and motivated, and from that standing start, most were able to perform basic algebra by the end of the course. Not all passed, of course, but there were far more As then Fs, more Bs than Ds, and none of the students dropped out during the class; and even the low-performing students exhibited more mastery of the subject at the end than they did at the beginning.