Pedersen: Colleges and schools should collaborate more to remediate less

"Nationwide, over 60 percent of students come to "Nationwide, over 60 percent of students come to community colleges in need of remediation in at least one subject," writes Jeffrey M. Pedersen. Photo Credit: Donna Grethen / Tribune Media Services

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It's no secret that large numbers of students still need basic instruction in core subject areas when they get to college. Nationwide, over 60 percent of students come to community colleges in need of remediation in at least one subject. At Suffolk County Community College, about half of our arriving students need this developmental coursework in math alone.

Many have noted that, in these challenging economic times, it's fiscally irresponsible for taxpayers to continue, as the State University of New York Chancellor Nancy Zimpher stated in this year's State of SUNY address, "to pay twice to educate our students -- once in paying for high school education, and then again paying for college students to take remedial courses to learn skills that should have been mastered in high school." According to Zimpher, SUNY spends over $70 million a year on remedial education, most at the community college level.

This problem has profound ramifications for college-bound students and for institutions of higher education. The percentage of students who stay in college drops precipitously for each remedial course taken -- not simply because of the academic challenge, but also because of the demoralizing effect of the longer timeline to earn their degree or to gain employment. Additionally, the cost of taking added courses -- especially courses that do not count toward graduation -- is a real burden.

Nationally, only one in 10 students placed into remedial coursework finishes the two-year course of study in three years, and many drop out altogether. The large number of degree-less students who aren't prepared for the workforce has a negative effect on the economy. These students will face a significantly reduced earning potential as a result of not completing their college study.

Unfortunately, too often the problem of students arriving at colleges and universities unprepared has resulted in finger-pointing: Higher education blames the high schools, high schools blame the middle schools, middle schools blame the elementary schools, and elementary schools blame the parents, who, in turn, blame the whole educational system.

Few outside that system understand the complex nature of the problem, which stems primarily from the very different goals of K-12 education and higher education. K-12 serves to promote an educated citizenry, providing the skills necessary to function in our contemporary society to everyone -- not simply the college-bound. College seeks to provide specialized or advanced knowledge and skills.

At Suffolk County Community College, we have begun partnering with local school districts to review the problem of underprepared college-bound students. One local school district contacted the math chairperson at our eastern campus to see how we could work together to reduce the number of students needing remediation in math upon arriving at college. The college tested the students in their junior year of high school to see where they would be placed in math, and suggested the high school adopt the same math educational software the college uses in our developmental math program to work with those students performing poorly.

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The number of students placed in remedial math upon arrival at Suffolk from that district dropped from 62 percent to 25 percent -- an amazing improvement in just one year.

The same school district has asked to collaborate this school year on reducing the number of students needing writing remediation. Several other districts have been talking with us about how we can work together to get more students ready for college.

This kind of collaboration presents an unprecedented opportunity for educators to work together to address the issue of under-preparedness among our college-bound students across Long Island. And, with a better allocation of resources, it could easily be replicated across the state and the nation. That would go a long way toward promoting college-readiness among our young people.

Jeffrey M. Pedersen is the college dean of instruction at Suffolk County Community College.

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