Lawmakers to colleges: no more semesters of remediation

A quarter of the students who enter a public college in Connecticut spend their first year taking only non-credit remedial courses. Some even spend two years.

That may soon end, with the legislature overwhelmingly approving a bill that will, starting in the fall of 2014, restrict the circumstances that college officials can, and cannot, require students to spend time and money taking these courses.

“As we slow them down, they are less likely to graduate,” said Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, co-chairwoman of the Higher Education Committee.

Bye and many other legislators have referred to these remedial courses as the colleges’ Bermuda Triangle: Just 13.6 percent of the full-time students who take them actually earn an associate’s degree in four years, twice the time it should take, reports the Board of Regents.

“That status quo is not working. There is a fundamental problem… It needs to change,” said Mike Meotti, a top official at the state’s Board of Regents for Higher Education, whose colleges enroll 15,000 new students a year.

The approved bill will limit remedial enrollment to one semester and requires more than a standardized entrance exam to determine who must take these non-credit courses. The test that many community colleges currently use was criticized in a recent report by researchers at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

“Placement tests do not yield strong predictions of how students will perform in college,” the report reads.

Professors at public universities have tried to kill the bill.

“We are not on board with this,” said Ellen Benson, an official for Connecticut State Universities’ faculty union. Professors sent legislators a wave of emails outlining their concerns that restricting remedial education enrollment could land many students in courses they are not equipped to take.

“It sets students up for failure,” said Benson about the original proposal that would have eliminated all remedial courses. Faculty members still have significant concerns, she said, including how soon the changes will go into effect.

But faculty concerns weren’t enough to sway legislators. Just 15 of the 189 state representatives and senators voted against the bill. A spokesman for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy was unsure if the governor plans to sign the bill.

Before the vote in the House late Friday, Rep. Mary M. Mushinsky, D-Wallingford, said she plans to support the bill because, “Remedial coursework is too much a barrier to earning a degree.”

And this barrier disproportionately affects black and Hispanic students, reports Complete College, a national nonprofit organization funded by the Gates Foundation and others. Seventy-two percent of black freshman are sent to remediation compared with 56 percent of white students, the organization reports. Graduation rates are similarly uneven.

Rep. Jason Rojas, who represents East Hartford, Glastonbury and Manchester, voted against the bill. He said he knows that remediation is a huge problem, but he pointed to Board of Regents’ figures showing that 70 percent of the students who enroll in community colleges have not been adequately prepared in high school, and need remedial courses.

“But I’m not convinced that this new system will solve the problem. It was kind of like trying to fit a square into a round hole and expecting it to work,” he said. “The colleges have received significant cuts. I am not sure they can handle this new program.”

The 100,000-student college system has had its state funding cut by nearly $30 million this year.

But Bye isn’t buying that argument.

“There are community colleges in the state who are making money on these courses. They need to figure something else out,” she said, noting that she suspects the pushback is because significantly less faculty will be needed. “What we’ve done with this bill is we’ve drawn a line in the sand. We had to say to them, ‘Look we’re the parents here. No more of this.'”

The approved state budget provides no funding for this initiative which, in addition to a new evaluation system, also requires that entry-level courses for credit have significant help for students who would have previously been routed to remedial classes.

Meotti, the colleges’ executive vice president, said that doesn’t worry him. The cost to the state to have these remedial courses is steep: $84 million a year, according to the New England Board of Higher Education.

“The savings from this reorganization will help,” he said. “The bottom line is we will have funding.”

Bye said she suspects that only a small fraction of those who are sent to remediation now actually need it.

“I have heard stories of people spending two or three years in remediation. Something needed to change,” she said. “This will do that.”