SADOW: Where Best To Provide College Students Remedial Education?

While it may seem an intramural debate to some, much larger implications for taxpayers and students come from decisions where to offer college remedial coursework as well as what role this has in Louisiana’s system of higher education.

Now into its second year of evaluation, the Board of Regents is experimenting with offering these courses at both community colleges and baccalaureate-and-above institutions. The literature seems inconclusive on whether these should be offered at just community colleges or at both levels. For entry into senior institutions, first-time freshmen students must show proficiency in at least one of English and mathematics through minimum American College Test scores well below the national average in each to gain admittance. If coming up short in one, a remedial course must be taken.

The case for not having them taught at both levels is that they dilute these institutions’ resources that should concentrate on students who already have demonstrated capability to succeed. More crucially, faculty members at these senior institutions are a more expensive resource to utilize in this endeavor, which gets passed on to the taxpayer and student, because they have additional service duties and research expectations.

But it’s argued that by forcing all deficient students into at least one term in some cases but in others a whole academic year at a community college, as they would be embargoed from attending a senior institution in effect, as research shows students taking this path are no more likely to complete an associate or baccalaureate degree in a timely fashion than those without need for remedial education. This may happen because community colleges lack resources that the higher level schools have to assist marginal students, and they may be less likely concentrate on the general educational requirements that include the remedial areas which are needed as a foundation for degrees and put greater emphasis on the technical or vocational aspects.

Understanding this problem requires the proper conceptualization of it. Some argue that four-year universities ought to teach these because of the superior ancillary resources they can bring to bear and that otherwise, with some 60 percent of high school students underprepared for college, “there won’t be enough students to fill up all of these universities,” in the words of one advocate who claims universities that consider such students as not suited for that level of work “have the wrong way of looking at it.”

However, this confuses conceptually the meaning of remediation. Echoing the confusion surrounding what is poverty, where being poor is not having a lack of assets or income but is a complex of attitudes that produces behavior resulting in low income and/or assets. The same applies to remediation needs: remediation is not a product of a low score or two, it comes from lacking the background, intellectual development, or temperament to produce competency.

And the proper venue to address these shortcomings is at the community college level. Without any significant research or service components as a part of their duties, faculty as these institutions should be expected to devote the vast majority of their energies to teaching, on the basis that, compared to students at senior institutions, many of their students need greater intervention and assistance in order to learn. Further, this can be done more cheaply by community colleges, to the benefit of taxpayers and students.

Arguments that community colleges lack institutional capacity to address students in more need are a red herring to this reality. That only means that, if this is the case in Louisiana, its community colleges should focus more on building that capacity. And this is not mutually exclusive with increasing their emphasize on general educational requirements that allow for smoother transfer to baccalaureate-and-above institutions and for greater success of those students once they arrive, if more students who want bachelors’ degrees have to start at community colleges because the senior institutions won’t teach remedial courses.

There are a number of folks within the state’s universities who want their institutions to keep teaching remedial coursework, because it steers more students and money into an overbuilt system scrambling for resources. Yet they ignore the fact that remedial need indicates overall lower student capability that is best honed at the level that should be designed better to sharpen it, which if abjured only ends up wasting time and resources. Both the public and higher education’s clients are served better by having remedial education performed where the best specialized processes can exist to do it well.

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