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Mississippi and Maine have become the latest in a series of states to question whether school districts should be held financially responsible when students arrive at college unprepared.

Lawmakers in Mississippi will likely vote on two bills this winter that would require public school districts to front the costs if their graduates require remedial courses in the state’s community colleges. Undergraduates are placed in the lower-level courses to improve their skills in subjects like reading, writing, and math, after they are deemed unprepared for college level classes. Senator Nancy Collins, R-Tupelo, introduced one of the bills in early January, which also proposes ending state funding of remedial education classes at state-supported community colleges and universities. Senator John Polk, R-Hattiesburg, introduced the second bill with nearly identical measures and an extensive proposal for a new funding formula. More than 40 percent of community college students in the state need remediation, which cost the state $35 million in teacher salaries, classroom space, utilities, and associated costs in 2012.

Unprepared college students
Proposed legislation in Mississippi would take funding from school districts to pay for remedial students in state run community colleges. (Photo by Jackie Mader)

Officials in New Hampshire, Missouri, and Oregon have considered similar legislation over the last five years although the proposals did not even make it out of legislative committees in any of those states. In Maine, Governor Paul LePage said last summer that he plans to tackle the issue in the spring; later he acknowledged that he doubted the bill would pass.

If approved in Mississippi, the measure would pose serious financial and logistical difficulties. The state has only fully funded its K-12 system twice in the last decade, according to recent news reports. But Governor Phil Bryant has stated that education will be the focus of the legislative session this year, and supporters are hopeful that the bill will be passed and approved in the midst of other reforms, even though experts say they know of no other states with similar legislation.

Advocates of the measure say colleges should not be held responsible for the failings of high schools and that the increased accountability could prompt K-12 systems to improve. Students in Mississippi consistently perform near the bottom on standardized tests; in 2011, students in 44 other states outperformed Mississippi’s fourth-graders on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. And only 62 percent of students graduate from high school within four years and with a regular degree. But several higher education experts say they are skeptical about penalizing high schools — particularly those in high-poverty areas — for factors that are at least partially outside of their control.

“You need to somehow take into account the difficulties that high schools have,” said Thomas Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University. He added that it’s a “very simplistic notion” to put all the blame for remediation on the secondary school system.

But Collins of Mississippi said in a recent media interview that “high school students, when they get a diploma…they ought to be able to go to college…They should not have remediation.” Collins was unavailable for an interview.

Mississippi Learning

The Hechinger Report taking a deep look into the woeful performance of Mississippi’s schoolchildren, as well as possible solutions to help them catch up.

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Nationwide, about fifty percent of undergraduates and as many as 70 percent of those entering community colleges are placed in remedial courses.

Kay McClenny, the director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin, says that the real issue is a lack of curriculum alignment and cooperation between high schools and community colleges.  “Ultimately, what we need to have is not finger pointing and rock throwing across the fence of various segments of education, but really much better collaboration,” she said.

College remediation has long been a subject of debate: It costs the states nearly $4 billion annually, and opponents say remedial courses don’t even prepare students for college level work. In Mississippi, remedial courses currently cost the same as regular classes based on credit hour, so students must foot the bill for the extra classes. Fewer than 10 percent of these students end up graduating from community colleges within three years, according to Complete College America.

These arguments have prompted more than 20 states to cut funding for remedial education. Some community colleges have started to restrict admission to students who have at least a seventh-grade proficiency level, directing them to local adult basic education classes and saving on remediation costs.  The bills propose a system where colleges would be reimbursed for the costs they incur by providing remedial education to students.

Community colleges often have to serve students from a variety of backgrounds. In 2012, the average age of community college students was 28, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. Forty-two percent of students attending community colleges last year were first-generation college students.

In Mississippi, the proposed bills would require each university and community college to report the high school and school district for every student receiving remedial education to the state. State agencies would then determine the cost of remedial education for those students and withhold funding from individual school districts, many of which are already cash strapped.

Opponents say that it is illogical to take money away from current high school students to pay for students that have already graduated. But Polk, the state senator, says that a high school diploma should mean something, and schools should ultimately not be graduating students that are unprepared. “Who else do you hold responsible but the person or the entity that graduated the student?” he said.

The introduction of “Common Core standards” throughout the country, including in Mississippi, could make paying for remedial education an even bigger hurdle in the coming years. The standards provide a more consistent sense of what schools should be teaching — and students learning — across different states.

McClenny estimates that in the short term, more students than ever will seem to need remediation as states transition to more rigorous high school tests based on the new standards. She said community colleges need to examine their curriculum and standards in light of the Common Core standards.

“It is our collective responsibility as educators in both sectors to align the expectations for high school graduation and college entry,” she said. “That’s the way to get the problem solved.”

In Mississippi, the two bills will likely come up for discussion sometime in the next two weeks, according to Polk.

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  1. I have taught in MS high schools and now community college for 23 years. I strongly agree with those in your article who argue for greater coordination and communication between high school and college educators. Truthfully, many of our colleges are as unprepared for the entering students as the students might be for college.

    I hope the legislature moves thoughtfully on these bills regarding who should pay for remediation because there are many issues involved. For example, iIt seems hypocritical–at best– to admit that the state has consistently forced K12 schools to do more and more while underfunding them; then penalize them again for remediation. The majority of students who graduate from high school, and most of those who come to community college, are usually not in the top 10% of their classes; they are not the ones who get the college-prep courses or information. Are we now to assume that every student who graduates high school whether an A student or the barely-go-by D student should all be college ready? Not all the students needing remediation come from public high schools; who will pay for them? It is ironic that as we have moved to testing K12 students more and more over the past 10 years, the more remediation services have had to be expanded. So what is all this testing really doing for our children?

    As the article noted, many of our entering community college students are older persons returning to school for various reasons. Many of them need or request remediation and review before entering their credit bearing courses. These are just a few of the problems to be considered.

  2. It’s telling that colleges will take students who excel at sports and pave the way to a college degree with free money and exclusive privileges, but don’t seem to mind if these athletes require tutors and educational support. Are high schools going to be held accountable for athletes who get athletic scholarships but need remedial work? This is ludicrous hypocrisy.

    Is the purpose of high schools in these states to prepare students for college? Is that the stated purpose of high schools or is it implied? And if so, is the standard of measurement the ACT or the SAT? Or do individual colleges have their own standards of entry? If the entry requirements are not standardized, this too is singular hypocrisy.

    Do high schools have stakeholder investment in college prep supports? Let’s be honest, people read “high schools” and think “teachers.” So when high schools get hit with some kind of fine, are they going to hold (already underpaid) teachers accountable for a part or all of that fine? This is ludicrous fantasy.

  3. If Mississippi legislators are looking at someone to hold finically accountable for the lack of college preparedness of the state’s high school graduates, I submit the learned politicians should levy fines on themselves. If we can assume curriculum alignment between the high school and community college, then was it not these same legislators who approved the states standardize testing system (designed) to ensure that very preparedness. Politicized public education has created forums espousing state subsidized private education cloaked in the name of parental choice, teacher evaluations including a student standardize test score component, and the bemoaning of apathetic parents uninvolved in their students’ education. With each public outcry ascending to the soapbox demanding their voice by heard above the others each louder than the one before, but sharing the commonality of looking for, and pointing fingers at, someone to blame. I put forth the question, who suffers during this well choreographed political ballet over public education, the most important but under heard voice among stakeholders, students.

  4. This entire discussion is based on a false premise: that every high school graduate is somehow entitled to enter and attend college or university. That has never been the case before, so why should it be the case now? Let’s step out of our delusions and honestly face a few facts about people, incentives and education:
    1) When students fail, it’s rarely the fault of their schools and almost always their own fault and the fault of their parents. Good parents work closely with their children to ensure that they succeed in school.
    2) Not every person is destined for a university education.
    3) Many jobs are available for those without college learning and training. If a person doesn’t want to discipline him/herself to go to college, they are telling us they want one of those jobs that does not require the degree. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that.
    4) Many young people, after working a few years in the jobs spoken of in 3) above will finally gain the maturity to discipline themselves to the extent that they are then able to obtain a college education through their efforts and sacrifice – which is the way everyone else gets their college degree.
    5) Let us in the United States stop pretending that we are under the European system. In Europe (I lived in Germany five years of my adult life.) there is a wall of finality between the University types and all others. Once assigned to the non-college track, few, if any, breech the gap and ever enter a university. But here in the United States hundreds of thousands of those who were not on a college track in high school find the will and discipline sometime afterwards to enter, study and obtain the coveted college/university diploma. It’s the American way. Millions of Europeans describe America as “the land of endless possibilities,” by which they mean educational and other opportunities.

    So if a child is not ready for a college education right after high school, let’s — in the American spirit — continue to offer them opportunities, but cease thinking that they are somehow deficient if they don’t earn that degree. A university degree is something special; it is not a right, and is not a piece of wallpaper that everyone is entitled to.

  5. Is the employer that hires a college graduate going to hold the college or university accountable for all of the training that they have to do in order to get their recent college graduate ready to do the job they were hired to do?

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