Most colleges enroll students who aren’t prepared for higher education

BALTIMORE — The vast majority of public two- and four-year colleges report enrolling students – more than half a million of them–who are not ready for college-level work, a Hechinger Report investigation of 44 states has found. The numbers reveal a glaring gap in the nation’s education system: A high school diploma, no matter how recently earned, doesn’t guarantee that students are prepared for college courses. Higher education institutions across the country are forced to spend time, money and energy to solve this disconnect. They must determine who’s not ready for college and attempt to get those students up to speed as quickly as possible, or risk losing them altogether. Most schools place students in what are called remedial courses in math or English before they can move on to a full load of college-level, credit-bearing courses – a process that is a financial drain on not only students, but also colleges and taxpayers, costing up to an estimated $7 billion a year. Data from 911 two- and four-year colleges revealed that 96 percent of schools enrolled students who required remediation in the 2014-15 academic year, the most comprehensive recent numbers. At least 209 schools placed more than half of incoming students in at least one remedial course. “If we’ve been giving kids worksheets with simplistic answers for years and then get upset when they can’t write a five-paragraph essay or recognize subject-verb agreement, that’s not the kids. That’s us.” Sonja Brookins Santelises, CEO, Baltimore City Public Schools At least 569,751 students were enrolled in remedial classes that year. The true total is likely much higher because of inconsistencies in the way states track this data that may not capture adults returning to school or part-time students. Some states report numbers for the entire student body, while others limit their data to incoming students. Some states also did not provide specific student enrollment numbers at all, did not report it for all their schools or did not have data from that year available. (Read more about the problems we had collecting this data here.) Related: Many who pass state high school graduation tests show up to college unprepared The rates are “so high that there’s no question students are getting out of high school without the skills they need to succeed in college,” said Alex Mayer, a senior research associate at MRDC, an education and social policy research organization. “The other side of it is these students are not getting out of college, for the most part.” Indeed, research has shown that students who enroll in these remedial courses often never even make it into the classes that will count toward a degree. A similarly wide-ranging 2012 report by Complete College America determined that nearly half of entering students at two-year schools and a fifth at four-year schools were placed in remedial classes in the fall of 2006. Nearly 40 percent of students at two-year schools and a quarter of those at four-year schools failed to complete their remedial classes, that report found. Different states use different cutoff scores to determine who must take these classes, which makes remediation-rate comparisons difficult and, critics say, remedial placement somewhat arbitrary. But despite the difficulty of comparison, many states have strikingly high remediation rates in their public colleges and universities. One of those is Maryland. At many public schools in the state, it’s uncommon for an incoming student not to be placed in remedial education. At Baltimore City Community College, for instance, in the fall of 2015, only 13 percent of students were deemed ready to start on college-level math and English courses right away, according to data provided by the school. All BCCC students must take a test in math and English called the Accuplacer upon enrolling. The standardized test is one of two used by most higher education institutions to determine students’ readiness. (Some schools use high school GPA or scores on the SAT or ACT.) At BCCC, and many other institutions, students are placed into one of three levels of remedial courses based on their test scores. (Starting in the summer of 2017, BCCC will only have two levels of remedial math.) A student at the bottom level in math might need help with basic arithmetic. A student who places into the lowest-level English course might still struggle with something as elementary as subject-verb agreement, said Melvin Brooks, associate dean of English, Humanities, Visual and Performing Arts at BCCC. “Some of them are so deficient, to try to include them in a credit-bearing course without that foundation would be a disservice,” he said, adding that the professor and other students would also be held back by a classmate so ill equipped to keep up. Related: A solution as obvious as it is rare: Making high school graduates ready for college...

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