Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Remediation Redux: A Response to the New York Times

The New York Times finally recognized that community colleges exist, devoting approximately one percent of the ink to us that it usually devotes to Larry Summers and Harvard.

It's disconcerting to be 'discovered' when you've been there all along. In fact, recent research indicates that many community colleges were founded before anybody even knew who the hell Larry Summers was. But I digress.

The article acknowledges that many college students arrive with serious skills deficits, outside jobs, and family obligations. Some may never have made it through a serious book cover-to-cover; some may have only the foggiest grasp of algebra. (I've heard math faculty say that every year, somebody raises a hand and asks 'why are you doing math with letters?')

I've written before on the dilemmas of remediation, so I'll just do a quick gloss here. CC's get blamed for high enrollments in remedial courses and low graduation rates, but we're also supposed to be open-admissions. Open admissions will lead, as sure as day leads to night, to high levels of remediation. Why that's our fault still escapes me. What the alternative is supposed to be escapes me, too – do we want higher-cost for-profit remediation? Should we just open up the high schools? Is adult literacy not really important anyway?

A few more thoughts on remediation, in response to the Times:

At my current college, we're working with some of the local high schools to combat 'senioritis' (the sloughing off of academics by high school seniors) by enrolling 12th graders in college-level classes. We've hit an unanticipated roadblock with placement tests. Many of the students who have been cruising through high school have placed developmental with us. After a considerable amount of back-and-forth with the department, the high school, and the testing center, I think I've located the gap. We test different skills. The high school defines 'good writing' as error-free prose. The college defines 'good writing' as 'sustaining an argument.' So the high school kids take our essay exam and write “See Spot run,” which got them accolades in high school; they place remedial with us, and get terribly upset.

My concern there is that with the current push for some sort of standardized national outcomes assessment test, we'll move to the high school model. It's easier to count errors 'objectively' than to assess the weight of an argument, so I'm worried that, in the name of uniformity, we'll move to error-counting. “See Spot run” will become exemplary.

On a more mundane administrative level, the article highlights the glaring flaw in the move to define higher education as a private good. To the extent that cc's and other less-selective public colleges are forced to become more tuition-driven, it becomes harder for us to deliver bad news to students. If a student marches out the door upon being told he needs remediation – a fairly common occurrence, in fact – then the institution shoots itself in the foot financially by doing the right thing. At my previous employer, a for-profit, the bar for remediation was set so low that almost nobody was placed into it, despite some glaring skills deficits. That was a policy decision set to ensure that we didn't blow the sale when a student came to enroll.

When public colleges got smaller percentages of their budgets from tuition, it was easier to hold the line on these issues. As the public sector has shifted its funding to prisons and tax cuts, we've had to rely more on tuition, making the temptation to lower the standards much more compelling. If we're serious about fixing skills deficits, we have to stop punishing the colleges that actually try.

The other alternative, of course, would be to abolish mandatory placement tests and mandatory remediation altogether, leaving each to the option of each individual student. I prefer this option, truth be told, but it doesn't solve the fiscal problem; it only postpones it. If we let students sign up for whatever they want, and a significant number overestimates its collective preparedness, then we need to be prepared, as institutions, for dramatically higher drop/fail rates. Experience suggests that the necessary second step would not happen, and the path of less resistance – that is, lowering standards – would become irresistible. Again, as long as our institutional survival is predicated on student headcount, we should be expected to act in the interests of our own survival. The responsible thing to do would be to de-link operational funding from tuition, such as used to be standard in earlier decades, and is still standard in the K-12 system. I have no illusions that the public is ready for this.

Remedial courses cost more to teach, by and large, than do credit-bearing first- and second- year courses. The sections are kept smaller, for obvious reasons, and the support services required (writing center, math center, etc.) are pure cost to the institution. Dropout rates are higher, meaning that recruitment costs are amortized over fewer semesters. Many colleges try to compensate by farming out most of the remedial courses to adjuncts, but the savings from that strategy are finite (and mostly already realized by now), and the costs of that strategy to students are potentially devastating, if high faculty turnover leads to spotty quality. If cc's are to be the homes of remediation, which I think is the case by default, then we need to be willing to plow non-tuition funding in.

Even if, by some miracle, we were to effect great improvements in the public high schools, we would still have tremendous remedial needs at cc's. We get significant numbers of immigrants, people with GED's, returning adults, and speakers of English as a second (or third, or fourth) language. Fixing the high schools wouldn't affect any of these groups. Yes, we absolutely should improve the high schools, but that doesn't solve this issue. (And realistically, any improvements in the high schools would be incremental. We might get the remedial percentage lowered a few points, which would be a good thing well worth doing, but we wouldn't eliminate it. Simply not going to happen.)

Some people try to evade the issue of remediation be referring to job training, rather than 'education.' If we don't get all hung up on 'knowing how to read,' the argument goes, we can get folks into secure, well-paying jobs. It sounds good until you realize that almost every well-paying job requires literacy. The skills we're talking about at this level are really prerequisites to both academic and career programs.

In this, as in so many things, defining a public good (an educated citizenry) as a private good (a credential for making more money) works fine for those at the top, but screws over those at the bottom. Thanks to the Times for noticing the existence of the bottom. Any time it would like to bother doing some actual analysis, that would be great.