Lawmakers are being flooded with concerns over why the state’s community colleges have eliminated remedial courses for the thousands of students every year who need them before they can move on to college-level classes.
But the concerns are based on inaccurate information about what a new state law – to be fully implemented in the fall – actually does, legislators and college officials say. What the law does includes creating three categories of remedial courses for students who need different levels of extra help.
“Where are they getting this? Why do they believe that?” Rep. Roberta Willis, D-Salisbury, House chairwoman of the legislature’s Higher Education Committee, asked college leaders last week.
The confusion is over a law signed in 2012 that requires the 57,000-student community college system to overhaul how it handles the 40,000 students who show up each year academically unprepared for college-level courses.
Before the new law, if they failed standardized entrance exams in math and writing, unprepared students typically had to pay tuition to attend remedial classes that earned them no credits toward their degree.
Some community college staff and education advocates think remedial courses are being eliminated, or that students wouldn’t be able to catch up in time to continue with normal college work. They fear that ultimately, the new law will prevent students from pursuing their education.
“Do we really want to disenfranchise them?” Wendy Samberg, director of instructional design and development at Gateway Community College in New Haven, asked state legislators last week.
The law has perplexed some legislators and state leaders as well.
“The kids are the ones being held at fault. We are eliminating access because of the fact that we are reducing the number of classes,” Rep. Toni Walker, New Haven Democrat and chairwoman of the legislature’s powerful budget-writing committee, told college leaders last week.
“I don’t want parents to come to me in September and tell me there is no seat for my child [in college] because their K-12 system didn’t get them there,” Walker said.
‘Turning remediation on its head’
Under the new law, Public Act 12-40, the state’s largest public college system creates three levels of courses to support students who need remediation. The level a student is placed in depends on his or her math and writing skills. The tiers are:
- Embedded courses: Students on the cusp of being ready for college courses will enroll in normal, 100-level college classes, but they’ll get added support to catch them up in the form of an extra hour or two of class time a week or added help online. Students will earn college credit upon completion, will pay normal tuition and can use their financial aid. About 13,000 students (one-third of those who take remedial courses) are expected to enroll in these courses.
- Intensive courses: Students with larger deficiencies in writing and/or math would enroll in these courses. They will have longer class hours than with a traditional course, and they will receive extra tutoring and help through online tools. Students will pay tuition, be able to use their financial aid, but they will not be able to take more than one semester of intensive writing or math. Students who complete these courses will not receive credit toward their degree. About 25,000 students are expected to enroll (63 percent of those expected to need remedial help).
- Transitional courses, or Boot Camp: Students who need significant help to be ready to take the intensive courses will be here. They will receive additional hours of support and help online to catch them up. These high-school level classes will be free. About 2,000 students are expected to need this level of teaching (about 5 percent of those who now take remedial courses).
Under the previous system, students who failed their standardized math and/or writing entrance exams were routed into noncredit remedial classes, moving them no closer to a degree. And they have to pay tuition or exhaust their financial aid for the classes.
Sen. Beth Bye, who shepherded the legislation through the General Assembly, 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, the Board of Regents reported.
Lawmakers approved the bill in a 160-15 vote in 2012, and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy celebrated its passage during a bill signing at Norwalk Community College. “We do a disservice to our college students when we burn through their financial aid to pay for remedial learning which doesn’t fulfill graduation requirements,” he said.
Facing a wave of concerns from college staff and education advocates, legislators now want to know what happens to the 40,000 students who were taking remedial courses each year.
Elsa Núñez, president of Eastern Connecticut State University and the college system’s point person for implementing the new law, told Walker, Willis and others on the legislature’s Appropriations and Higher Education committees last week that access to college has not changed.
“We are not turning anyone away,” she said. “We are turning remediation on its head with this.”
The dozen community colleges and four Connecticut State Universities started 136 pilot classes following the new strategy in the fall semester.
“The data is actually looking OK,” Nunez told legislators of the results from the pilots. “I don’t want to overstate just to impress anyone here this morning, but it does look OK. We didn’t do worse in this model than in the previous model we had.”
The Board of Regents for Higher Education, which oversees all of the state’s public colleges except The University of Connecticut, last year voted to outlaw the practice of using a lone standardized test to determine whether a student needed remedial coursework. Other indicators could include high-school transcripts, a senior portfolio, or other things that would help officials predict if a student would succeed in a college-level course.
Some local school districts have also stepped up and begun evaluating students before they graduate high school to determine their ability to take credit-bearing courses in college. In New Haven, for example, Gateway Community College teamed up with the local high schools to identify 169 college-bound high school seniors who were behind in math or writing. The students were enrolled in a catch-up course to complete before they graduate. (Read the story about that in the New Haven Independent here.)
The state’s education commissioner last week provided legislators with a one-page summary of what his agency is doing to help implement the new law.
“With the elimination of remedial classes in college, the department…” the summary reads, a clear disconnect from college officials’ insistence that remedial classes are not being eliminated.
The department reports that its efforts center on implementing the Common Core State Standards and that it is considering expanding adult education programs to host some of the students who need remedial help. The move would cost the state $2.1 million a year to roll out at all 20 of the state’s adult education programs.
Only as good at it’s funded
College officials say that because a majority of students are showing up unprepared for college, the ideal strategy is to provide intense supports. But the small class sizes, additional tutors, added course hours and technology support needed costs money.
“Classes are too large. We have not succeeded to the extent we would like” with these unprepared students, Núñez told legislators. “[T]he truth of the matter is we have never funded this appropriately.”
Last year, state legislators gave colleges $2 million to set up pilot classes based on the changed model. That was on top of the estimated $20 million the schools already spend on remedial courses. This year, the governor’s budget includes an additional $4 million to roll out the law statewide.
Walker, chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, said her lingering concern, after hearing from college officials on how the law is being implemented, is cost.
“I go back to the dollars,” she told college officials. “I think that $4 million is woefully underfunding it and think that is something we need to very strongly address.”
Bye, who is now the Walker’s co-chair on the budget-writing committee, also is concerned.
“We got the $4 million request and thought, ‘Huh?” she said. “We want to get people in credit-bearing classes. We have to get this right.”
College officials say rolling out the pilots statewide could cost an additional $4 million to $14 million. A draft budget for that plan last year estimates that it could cost the system up to $8.9 million a year to decrease class sizes, $2.9 million to hire tutors and counselors, and $1.6 for intensive technology.
“If you don’t have the right funding, can you produce the results?” Nunez asked. “The more help we add, the higher the costs.”
Absent a successful rollout, former members of the Community College Board of Trustees told legislators, the students are the ones who will be hurt.
“Restrictions threaten to create a class of students who will be prevented from succeeding because their access to successful strategies and continued enrollment will be limited by an arbitrary time schedule that does not meet their needs,” they wrote in submitted testimony to legislators last week. “Please don’t leave the citizens of Connecticut to be uneducated and left behind.”