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Who Will Teach Johnny to Read?

WASHINGTON

About 30% of first-time college students take remedial courses became they can't read, write or do math adequately. At community colleges, the percentage is often much higher-and it's rising.

Is this a problem? Or is it a solution?

A vocal band of politicians and college trustees see it only as a problem. Florida's legislature now requires students who flunk a remedial course to pay triple the normal tuition the second time. "Surely the taxpayers shouldn't pay for you to take" a remedial course again, says legislator Robert Shindler.

Elsewhere, legislators talk of charging high schools the cost of teaching their graduates the basics. A few congressmen fret about giving financial aid to students who are learning to read in college.

Early this year, New York Mayor Rudy Gluliani stirred controversy by proposing that the City University of New York (CUNY) get out of the remedial business. CUNY trustees voted to end remedial classes at four-year colleges, but permit them at two-year community colleges, where more than 80% of incoming students need remedial help. At community colleges elsewhere in New York, the proportion is about 47%.

In Georgia, where 20% of state university freshmen take remedial courses, the Board of Regents has voted to eliminate the classes by 2001 (except for students who have been out of high school five years or more). Trustees of the California State University system vow to cut the proportion of such students to 10% by 2007 from nearly 50% now.

Restricting remedial classes in college is billed as away to force high schools to do their jobs and to avoid dumbing-down college curricula. "I think we should change the standards at the high-school level so we give the kids a real high-school diploma," says Herman Badillo, the former Bronx president and a CUNY trustee.

To many educators and economist, however, this is like telling emergency rooms that the best way to encourage use of seat belts is to turn away injured passengers who weren't wearing them. It might help, but does it make sense?

Indeed, the fact that more than two million people are taking remedial courses on college campuses could be seen as a hopeful sign. Yes, it would be far better if those students had learned the basics in high school. But they didn't. And if colleges can teach them to read, write and add, two million more people will have a shot at decent jobs, with the obvious benefits to themselves and society.

"These people exist. They aren't going to go away," says economist David Brenneman, dean of the University of Virginia's education school. If colleges turn them away, they "are either going to be in very low-paying jobs, on welfare or imposing costs on society in some other way."

Muscle doesn't pay well anymore. According to new skill standards crafted by construction firms and unions, even pipe layers need to understand how to calculate rates of slope per foot and the volume of cylinders. A National Association of Manufacturers survey finds nearly 70% of its members offer remedial courses themselves, clear evidence that there is an economic payoff.

If the benefits of remedial education are often undervalued, the costs are often overstated. Half the entering freshmen at Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville, Florida need remedial work, but the cost is less than 3% of the budget. Mr. Brenneman estimates that public colleges spend perhaps 1% of total revenue on remedial education, at most $2 billion. Americans spend three times that sum on cut flowers.

The public debate isn't usually framed as an argument over costs and benefits; instead it's about the contentious issue of standards. But if colleges raise standards for entry into degree-granting programs, the need for remedial courses to help students meet those standards won't shrink; it will grow.

So the question becomes not whether remedial courses should be taught, but where? Increasingly, the answer is: community colleges. Although they would rather boast of other accomplishments, community colleges do lots of remedial teaching, and many do it well. In Florida, state universities are forbidden from offering remedial courses; they contract with community colleges to teach the courses on every university campus. California statutes deem remedial instruction an essential and important community college function.

The issue isn't as easy as it appears on the surface," says Charlene Nunley, executive vice president of Maryland's largest community college, Montgomery College. Not so long ago, fewer than half of high-school students aspired to college; now 70% or more do. "Much broader ranges of students have to be prepared for college," she says.

To reduce the need for remedial courses, a few farsighted colleges are moving beyond hectoring high schools to helping them. The Georgia Board of Regents has raised $8 million in corporate money for after-school, Saturday and summer programs for seventh and eighth-graders who might otherwise need the remedial help that the university won't be offering when they reach college age. Montgomery College learned from focus groups with its own remedial students that many turned away from academics in 10th grade. So in a pilot program, the college now administers a version of its placement test to 10th-graders so they know what it takes to succeed in college, and dispatches community-college remedial specialists to help high-school teachers.

These programs won't show immediate results. But they are more likely to succeed than simply trying to ban remedial education from college campuses.

-DAVID WESSEL -

Copyright Wall Street Journal - All rights reserved

Wall Street Journal, November 9, 1998 - The Outlook

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