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Treating children that way is like giving a lion their food without making them hunt for it.

Jacinth Thomas-Val writes the sentence on the blackboard in her classroom at Sacramento City College, then asks her students what’s wrong with it. “What does ‘them’ refer to in this sentence?” she asks one young woman. The young woman doesn’t know, shakes her head, then gets up and leaves the classroom without explanation, not returning for the rest of the period.

remedial classes in college
Sacramento City College (Photo courtesy Ronbo76 at Wikimedia Commons)

More times than she can remember, Thomas-Val has explained that pronouns need to match the word or phrase to which they refer. But the students in English-Writing 40, the lowest-level writing class that her community college offers, make these same basic mistakes week after week. Thomas-Val presses on, erasing “a lion” and changing it to “lions.” One young woman in the front row—clearly the eager, outspoken type—starts to get it, and asks how to fix a similar sentence in the essay she’s just gotten back. But as Thomas-Val tries to explain, the back of the class dissolves into hushed talking and texting. Thomas-Val gently pulls them back to attention, but by the time she does, she needs to get the students started on their next essay assignment, a task that will consume the rest of the eighty-minute class. So she moves on.

Sacramento City is a typical California community college: its students are primarily minority, low income, and go to school part-time. Eighty-five percent of them arrive needing what are called remediation classes, courses like Thomas-Val’s English-Writing 40. Remediation classes are designed to bring students up to the level needed to get started on the college’s actual curriculum, to close the growing gap between what students have to know at the outset of college and what they learn in California’s crumbling high school system—or, for older students, basic skills they may have once had but have lost in their years out of school.

This willingness to offer opportunities and second chances to disadvantaged students, opportunities that aren’t available in many other countries, is what first appealed to Thomas-Val—herself an immigrant from Antigua—about American community colleges. But in her decades of teaching, she has been shocked at just how unprepared most of her students are, how little they know—and how hard it is to help them.

“It’s unbelievable, just totally unbelievable,” she says. Of their writing, she says, “It’s filled with all kinds of sentence-level errors. Not knowing how to join sentences or where sentence boundaries are. Capitalization problems. Stuff like that that you learned in grade school, or should have.” Faced with these circumstances, Thomas-Val has adjusted her own expectations. “Let’s say I have fifty students this semester,” she says, “and five of them do exceedingly well. I am so grateful for the five. [For] the other forty-five, yes, my heart breaks, but I think, ‘Oh, I’ve got five!’ ”

Losing the lead

The odds for Thomas-Val’s students are indeed formidable. Only 60 percent of the community college’s 3,000 remedial students pass their classes with a C or higher. Those who go looking for help at Sacramento City will face a mélange of disconnected programs and services. The college’s academic counseling center is badly understaffed, and most of the tutoring available on campus is provided by other students. A recent state initiative provided some extra dollars for remediation, which the college spent adding student tutors and a few instructors here and there, in a process one administrator calls “hodge-podgey.” In such an environment, there are limits to what even a well-meaning professor like Thomas-Val, or her more enterprising students, can do.

Thomas-Val is standing astride what is perhaps the leakiest juncture in the pipeline of American higher education, a pipeline that has unquestionably seen better days. America is losing its lead in higher ed: while other countries are turning out ever increasing numbers of college graduates, the U.S. has stalled. But the problem isn’t just getting high school graduates into college—about 70 percent of them already enroll. It’s getting them to finish it. Only about half of American enrollees leave college with a degree, putting us behind at least ten other developed nations in educational attainment, according to a recent report by the Brookings Institution.

Where exactly we’re losing all of these students is unclear. But the best place to start looking is community college, and specifically those schools’ remediation programs. Nearly half of all students seeking college degrees start at community colleges, and of those, a large percentage—estimates put it around 60 percent—must take remedial classes. Remedial students run a high risk of dropping out and not graduating; one robust study found that only 30 percent complete all of their remedial math coursework, and fewer than one in four remedial students makes it all the way to completing a college degree. Students who need remediation drop out at worse rates than community college students who don’t, and the more remedial classes they need to take, the less likely they are to stay in school.

There’s a chicken-and-the-egg element to this, of course. Getting through two years of college is extremely hard for a student with fifth-grade skills—it may be too much to expect from many of them, even with the best help. So it’s difficult to tell what exactly the grim remedial statistics say: Is the gulf between the students’ abilities and the most basic requirements of college simply too wide? Or are the programs failing?

We don’t know, and therein lies the problem. Community college remediation is the Bermuda Triangle of the higher education system—vast numbers of students enter, and for all intents and purposes disappear. We have almost no hard evidence about what works and what doesn’t in remediation, and almost no one—policymakers, researchers, and administrators—has tried to figure it out in any systematic way. The reason for this is a combination of unjustly scant resources, huge gaps in data, and sometimes a sense of fatalism—or, worse, denial—that keeps state and school leaders from making it a priority. Meanwhile, the situation is likely to get worse before it gets better. Jobs requiring a college education are on the rise, and the labor market continues to pay a premium for college-educated workers. Students who wouldn’t have gone past high school a few decades ago are now heading to college—especially community college—but they’re not remotely prepared.

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(President Barack Obama greets the crowd at Macomb Community College in Warren, Mich., Tuesday, July 14, 2009. Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

But this trend also offers real opportunities. Even if community college remediation programs can simply go from terrible outcomes to mediocre ones—if, for instance, the programs were able to meet the needs of even just the top half of remedial students—the aggregate nationwide impact could be an additional 150,000 college graduates per year. The Obama administration is aware of this potential, and is looking to community colleges to help the U.S. out of the economic crisis and meet our longer-term needs for more college graduates. In July, President Obama announced a new America Graduation Initiative that calls for an additional five million community college graduates by 2020.

Meeting this goal is a tall order. But too few policymakers are willing to take the first steps: stop trying to educate the most academically challenged students on the cheap, and insist on community colleges having a stake in whether or not their students succeed. The colleges that have already started to take this kind of responsibility show that such an investment can pay off. If we don’t fix the pipeline where it’s leaking most, even the best-laid plans for revitalizing the workforce with college graduates will amount to little.

Overburdened and underfunded

Although 6.5 million undergrads attend them, community colleges have long held a marginal position in America’s higher education system. They receive less funding, less media attention, and fewer philanthropic gifts than their four-year cousins, even as they are saddled with the hard, messy job of delivering on the American promise that everyone who wants to should be able to go to college. While K–12 school systems and universities have clear missions, community colleges are simply tasked with doing everything the other systems don’t: getting underprepared students ready for universities, providing job-specific training and certificates, and offering a wide range of basic education for adults—everything from English to word processing to physical education.

While states are quick to pile new missions and responsibilities onto community colleges, they are less quick to fund them: nationwide, the schools get less than half per student of what four-year public research universities get in state and local funds. This is in spite of the fact that community college students comprise one of the fastest-growing sectors in American higher education, swelling with low-income and first-generation college-goers looking for courses that are cheaper, more accessible, and more flexibly scheduled than those on offer at the typical four-year college.

The problems this situation poses are thrown into particularly sharp relief in California, the home of the nation’s largest community college system, which serves 2.8 million students on 110 campuses. California’s system was intended as a gateway to higher education when the state developed its “Master Plan” for higher education in 1960. While the state’s public four-year universities accepted the top-performing third of high school graduates, the community colleges would accept everyone else. The idea was that students could start college close to home and at a low price, then transfer their credits to a four-year university to complete a bachelor’s degree. California’s plan was widely considered to be a model social policy at the time of its inception: the system provided opportunity to anyone who was interested, without sacrificing quality for those who were exceptional.

But California’s Master Plan was drafted with an eye to the needs of a state which, demographically speaking, no longer exists. It was designed basically for “white kids in the fifties,” says Dr. Robert Gabriner, a former president of the Research & Planning Group for California Community Colleges. “And being a white kid from the fifties, I can tell you that was pretty good.” In 1960, only a fifth of college-age Californians went to college, and the state’s K–12 school system did a relatively good job of preparing that top band of students for it. But in the subsequent half century, immigration and swelling birthrates brought California a younger and more diverse population, which the state’s K–12 public schools never adapted to. Over the same period of time, the labor market shifted toward industries that needed more highly educated workers, and the number of students who aspired to attend college rose accordingly. Meanwhile, a series of ballot initiatives and court decisions changed how California schools were funded, gutting and destabilizing school funding just as educational needs were growing.

Because California’s four-year universities were reserved for the top third of high school graduates, the weight of this unfortunate confluence of trends fell mostly on the state’s community colleges. The schools were flooded with new students who were emerging underprepared, and in ever larger numbers, from the K–12 system. Community college enrollment grew elevenfold between 1960 and 2005, but funding levels didn’t keep pace with the colleges’ educational challenges or their growing importance to the state’s system of higher education. Per student, community colleges get less than a third of what’s allotted for the state’s prestigious University of California four-year schools. Community colleges are required to accept virtually anyone interested in higher education, no matter how unprepared, and today an astonishing 84 percent of incoming California community college students don’t qualify to take college-level math classes that can count toward a four-year degree (in English, it’s over 70 percent).

Remediation rises

As the level of education students brought with them to community college fell, the colleges began leaning more and more heavily on their remediation classes. As the number of students needing remediation increased, so too did the number of classes, faculty, and support services outside of class to help them. But the system developed in piecemeal fashion at most campuses, incorporating disconnected programs and disparate pots of money over the years. The programs have gotten bigger, but not better, suffering a particularly acute form of the neglect and vagueness of mission that plagues the community college system as a whole.

To make matters worse, most colleges haven’t spent a lot of time examining just how well their remedial programs are working. Lacking the kind of testing systems found in K–12, community colleges can’t systematically determine how much students are learning in remedial education or pinpoint areas of weakness in the courses. Many regular college faculty just try to ignore the problem, while remedial instructors are often adjunct faculty rather than tenured or full-time professors. They’re sometimes called “freeway fliers” because they cobble together jobs at multiple colleges; even the most committed among them have limited time for students and few opportunities to improve their own teaching.

Colleges offer support services like drop-in tutoring and academic counseling for remedial students, but they don’t do enough to encourage students to use them, and the students—who tend to be passively engaged in their education, and aren’t used to advocating for themselves—often don’t seek them out. Even if more students did take advantage of the services, many colleges wouldn’t have the resources to provide them, and the quality of the help in many cases is spotty. At Sacramento City College, the student-to-counselor ratio is reportedly 900 to 1, and some students told me they’d just as soon ask their friends for advice on what courses to take.

The maze of remediation programs and services worsens what is already a harsh environment for community college students, who are in many cases the first in their families to attend college and arrive on campus with little notion of how to navigate the educational bureaucracy. Students commute to school, and many attend part-time and sign up for classes online without consulting anyone from the college. They also forge few relationships with their classmates. “I drive to school, go to class, and leave,” says Nadine Brown, a student from Sacramento who’s tried two different community colleges so far. “That’s about it.” The lack of stickiness makes it easy for students to slip away, and often drop out for good. No one calls to say, “What happened to you?”

Who is leading?

Community colleges have little incentive to do better, thanks to poorly structured state policies. Colleges receive funding based on the number of students that enroll, rather than the number that actually complete courses or graduate—helping students get over the remediation hurdle costs schools money, but doesn’t get them any more of it from state coffers.

In the absence of leadership, California’s community college system has developed an inertia all its own. The stakeholders with the greatest influence on the schools’ governance are the multiple employee associations and unions that have a natural interest in maintaining the status quo. These groups have generally resisted state-led efforts to standardize practices or change the way community colleges do their business, bristling at the idea of being compared—much less penalized—on the basis of student outcomes.

This resistance is grounded in some legitimate concerns about fairness. Sacramento City College’s dean of planning, research, and institutional effectiveness, Dr. Marybeth Buechner, argues that expecting colleges to transfer students into four-year schools who enter far below college level is like “an oncologist who’s slapped because their patients sometimes die.” But it has ultimately led the community college system to choose reporting practices that obscure the dropout problem while allowing everyone from legislators to college presidents and deans to evade responsibility for the part of the problem that is correctable. For example, the college system’s official measure of student progress and achievement inflates success rates by considering the performance of an unreasonably narrow cohort of students, the ones who have already enrolled in a math or English class above the remedial level and have completed at least four classes of any kind. Everyone else—about 60 percent of the actual student population—is deemed not to be a serious degree seeker and is dropped from the calculation altogether. By this generous methodology, 52 percent of California’s degree-seeking community college students achieve their goals or demonstrate progress toward them. But independent efforts to track the success of a larger group of students that could reasonably be assumed to be degree seekers— 60 percent of them, by one credible estimate—suggest a far less rosy picture, in which only a quarter to a third of students who want to transfer or finish a one- or two-year degree program actually do.

These numbers are hugely contentious in community college circles. One unflattering study, published in 2007 by Nancy Shulock, the executive director of the Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy at California State University, Sacramento, set off a firestorm among insiders and the local media, and made her persona non grata throughout California’s community college system. Even midlevel campus bureaucrats have a surprisingly thorough knowledge of Shulock’s work, and will readily argue why her calculations are wrong. (Meanwhile, the fear of being “Shulocked”—becoming the object of intense scrutiny and personal criticism—appears to have spread among critics and observers of the system. More than one researcher I spoke to was very leery of revealing numbers or analyses that cast a negative light on the community colleges.)

Fatalism and optimism

Arguments over who’s right tend to hinge on a debate over what exactly community colleges should be held accountable for when it comes to student performance. Administrators point out that many people who enroll in community college do not necessarily aspire to earn a degree, and that it’s unfair to expect them to graduate students who are there merely for short-term job training or a one-time refresher course. In fact, California community colleges do collect information from entering students about their intentions, but many administrators disregard it on the assumption that students don’t know much about college or how hard it will be to reach their stated goals.

California’s community college troubles are not unique to the state; underfunding is a nationwide problem and in many states two-year colleges are facing budget cuts in the coming year. The need for remediation is not unique to California’s students either, or to particular racial or ethnic groups—it’s a sad fact of American education that low incomes and low educational skills go hand in hand, regardless of other circumstances.

Faced with all this, even well-meaning community college personnel often evince a fatalism about their work, focusing more on students’ deficiencies and who’s to blame—the K–12 system, poverty, bad parents—than on what the college can do about them. “Community colleges are open access,” one Sacramento City College administrator told me. “Students can come here whether or not we have courses that are appropriate for them. We get students who can’t read. That blows me away! My curriculum is not designed to teach someone how to read.”

But despite the seemingly intractable nature of the remediation problem, some community colleges are managing to achieve a measure of success. A decade ago, a small group of faculty and administrators at Chaffey College, a large school serving primarily minority students in Rancho Cucamonga, California, grew alarmed at the rising remediation needs of incoming students, 70 percent of whom were placing below college level. Realizing that underprepared students were now the norm rather than the exception, the Chaffey team decided to revamp their entire approach to remediation, first by throwing out the word itself—opting for “foundational skills” instead—and by rethinking it as a schoolwide approach that extended beyond a particular subset of classes. They also framed the entire mission as a “moral imperative” for their college. “We decided not to talk about whose fault it is, because it doesn’t matter,” says Laura Hope, interim dean of instructional support at Chaffey. “That discussion is a waste of time.”

Armed with this notion of responsibility to, rather than simply tolerance of, underprepared students, the group shut down Chaffey’s old-style tutoring center, where students went for help only once they’d started to fail and which focused on helping students get past a particular essay or test, rather than learning skills that could be transferred to new situations. Instead, the college opened several centers that offered students supplementary lessons and learning activities that were linked to the students’ actual class work and were codeveloped by the classes’ instructors. The idea was to extend the reach of the classroom and offer extra instruction that faculty members simply didn’t have time to do themselves—a far more coordinated and intensive approach than the typical drop-in tutoring.

There was some resistance from the “recalcitrant tribal elders,” says Hope—another faculty member described them as “old dinosaurs who would rather bitch about their students”—but it didn’t take long for lots of faculty members to buy into the idea. For once, teachers could reach out to someone else on campus for help with specific problems they had in the classroom.

In the state’s official progress report, Chaffey does not stand out as a superstar. But one outside researcher found that Chaffey—which has the ninth largest remedial population in California’s community college system—was improving more than almost any other college in the state when it comes to getting students through remediation and into regular college-level courses. That rate has steadily improved by over 2 percent annually, meaning an additional 150 students make it through to college-level classes each year. The vast majority of colleges have been stagnant on this measure, or even slid back a bit, but Chaffey has made steady progress in the right direction—a real victory in what is sure to be a long war.

We’re not looking for miracles

It’s unreasonable to hold community colleges responsible for moving every incoming student with fifth-grade skills toward graduation. What we can reasonably aim for, however, is a system in which more schools perform like Chaffey—in which the schools that currently do the best job of approaching those goals are the standard, rather than the exception. If all of California’s community colleges were improving at the same rate as Chaffey, 25,000 more students would pass into college-level classes over two years’ time. It’s not a sea change, but it’s nothing to sneeze at, either.

Community colleges don’t have an obligation to work miracles, but they do have an obligation to do better—to ensure quality teaching and academic counseling, to pay close attention to student outcomes, to try new approaches when the old ones obviously aren’t working. States and college systems have an obligation to push community colleges that are less enthusiastic than Chaffey to embrace this mindset, by adopting policies that reward innovation, penalize complacency, and require transparent measurement of student performance.

Increasingly, it seems, the federal government is taking this view. So far, Obama’s higher education initiatives are focused on the right things: more resources for community colleges, a focus on completion, strengthening data and research, and improving remedial education for underprepared students. His American Graduation Initiative proposal calls for an unprecedented federal investment in community colleges—$12 billion over the next decade—by way of grants to innovative states and colleges and support for much-needed infrastructure, including research and facilities. A related report from Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers went further, recommending that postsecondary programs and institutions “should have an incentive to continually improve and should be held accountable for their results.” Obama has also made a smart move by naming a well-respected former California community college chancellor, Martha J. Kanter, as his undersecretary of education.

But it’s hard to say what real impact his initiative will have. Primarily, the plan will provide resources in the form of competitive grants to colleges and states—an approach that won’t help much in colleges with little capacity to start with and in states with weak central leadership, where the money may not be enough to wrangle all stakeholders into line. Critics also argue that it’s not all that much money (annually only 4 percent of total government expenditures on community colleges nationwide) and that none of it will go toward the colleges’ biggest problem of all: insufficient general funds. The initiative also falls short of establishing a true “performance measurement system” of the kind recommended in a recent report by the Brookings Institution, which would provide clearly defined goals for student outcomes and standard ways of measuring progress toward them.

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Bronx Community College (Photo by Ryan Brenizer)

Given what’s at stake economically, we should be looking much more closely at what value community colleges add and demanding that they do more. For decades, states have refused to confront the obvious: the decision to funnel the most academically at-risk students into colleges that receive the fewest resources has turned out to be something of a disaster. And both policymakers and community college administrators have indulged in the polite fiction that community colleges are not so different from four-year institutions, and accordingly deserve the same autonomy and academic freedom. But this laissez-faire attitude ignores the degree to which community colleges’ remedial programs—if not the rest of the colleges’ curricula—is functionally more like high school. There is plenty of disagreement about the use of test-based accountability in higher education, but the place where it should be least debatable is remedial education. Though teachers and students tend not to like testing—and there are plenty of ways to do it wrong—there is little argument that better assessment would help us know more about remedial students’ skill levels, how much they’re growing, and how to serve these students better.

As the relative value of the high school diploma has declined, more students want and deserve a real shot at a college education, and for many low-income people, that shot will begin at a community college. The first step is to embrace a new kind of American college student. The next is to invest in and reform the institutions that serve those students. That will mean hard work and focused attention from teachers, administrators, and elected officials at the highest levels of government—the same virtues we demand of community college students themselves. At her class at Sacramento City College, Jacinth Thomas-Val begins each day by providing her students with an inspirational quote, one of which reads: “The will to persevere is often the difference between success and failure.” Let’s practice what we preach.

This story originally appeared in Washington Monthly in 2009.

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  1. As a California Community College Instructor, an English teacher at De Anza College, I’m surprised that in a 4-5 thousand word article like this one, there is such a willingness to pound out some of the same old sort of slippery-slope “the end is near” journalism– exactly what we don’t need, to my mind. At least 2 or 3 thousand words here could be devoted to best practices!—to what is working and where and how. That is the real work in teaching and in journalism. The Chaffey example began to offer substance, but where was the cogent analysis of the value added or lost in changing support service strategies? Therein lies the substance. Ms. Esch also oft-repeated mantra about “5th-grade skills” in community colleges students–although it may be true more often than we would wish to think–only scratches the surface toward understanding the far more nuanced reality of community college demographics and classroom challenges, including for starters that students are increasingly taking full loads while working half to full time, struggling with second-language acquisition, and all this often in addition to other significant family and real life pressures. Sure, students are pushed through the high school system and often come to us under-prepared and not so hot at studying or reading books. But our society’s vertiginous class stratification has increasingly become the more responsible agent; what I often see in underprepared students is a sort of economic despair more than anything—their literacy and study skills often a function of that overriding malaise. Please feel invited to De Anza, Ms. Esch, to observe our district best practices in retention and success even as we cope with the pounding of heavy cuts from Sacramento. Use the vehicle of education journalism to show us, in challenging times, what works.
    –Ken Weisner
    De Anza College

  2. I find it ironic that your article lauds the K-12 system as having clear goals and testing systems, then quotes the number of high school graduates that require remediation courses at the community college level. I am not one to pass the buck, but when the crux of an issue is clear, let’s address it first. The only requirement of a community college registrant is that he or she have graduated from high school. The assumption is that the K-12 system has provided these students with sufficient skills and knowledge to successfully complete college coursework. Allow the community college to impose some minimum standard of entrance, so that college level work can indeed be pursued. Why not require high schools to take some responsibility for their students’ performance? Let’s refrain from graduating students who cannot equate a fraction to a decimal to a percentage. (My experience: Principles of Marketing)

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