Shaun L. McKay is president of Suffolk County Community College.

 

Among an array of issues covered by SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher in her State of the University address last month were the State University of New York's plans to eliminate the need for remediation on college campuses within the next decade. A multifaceted plan to address this critical national concern is long overdue.

Squarely at the center of this issue are the nation's community colleges. These institutions are charged with providing open access to cost-effective education designed to improve career prospects and quality of life. The community college mission to accept everyone who wishes to take advantage of affordable, quality higher education means these institutions are the first stop for students who are academically underprepared for college-level work.

Even now, some community colleges across the nation are beginning to discuss selective admissions policies -- in essence, a direct contradiction of the "full opportunity" mission.

A 2010 report, made possible with support from the Lumina Foundation for Education and the Education Commission of the States, indicates that as far back as the American Revolutionary War, our nation has seen students pursuing postsecondary educational opportunities who did not possess the necessary academic skills.

At Suffolk County Community College, over 60 percent of our incoming students need remediation in reading, math or writing -- and we are not alone. Some estimates indicate that more than one-third of the students in U.S. higher education settings require some type of remedial instruction. Our internal studies show that the more remedial classes students test into, the less likely they are to persist, to transfer, or to graduate. We are seeing the creation of a subclass of individuals who will be perpetually underemployed and will increase the nation's skills gap because they can't read, write or do basic math. This has the potential to become a long-term social and economic dilemma for our country.

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Everyone involved in the continuum of education -- from pre-K through community college to four-year colleges -- has a role to play in developing the solution. New York should consider a regional approach. Similar to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's design for the 10 Regional Economic Development Councils, we should form localized task groups across the state, feeding our creative ideas to a central body for consideration and recommendation.

I don't know what the final approach will look like. As an educator, I believe we should encourage high school students to complete four full years of math and English before they graduate. We already know that students are more likely to persist and graduate if they successfully pass a math class early in their college career, and their best chance to pass is if they had a recent math experience. But many students don't take a math class in their senior year, and they arrive to be tested for college placement without the benefit of content review.

We also need to examine and consider standardization of curriculum in elementary and high schools, as well as a set of common high school graduation requirements that will ensure students are college-ready when they arrive on campus. A 2006 study by the Education Commission of the States found that these kinds of initiatives have already been launched in 30 states; New York needs to join this movement.

 

Suffolk County Community College plans to inform the national discussion. We've engaged in a pilot program with Hampton Bays High School, where faculty members from our Eastern Campus work with the high school's teachers. We share course content and expectations, as well as assess and discuss how we would grade work. This helps to foster an understanding among high school students and teachers regarding the college's expectations and how they differ from those at the high school level.

Initial results from the 2010-2011 pilot are encouraging. Hampton Bays High School seniors who were enrolled in the Mathematics for College Bound course were given a diagnostic exam that indicated their strengths and weaknesses in content, similar to a college placement test. A structured curriculum was then followed where students satisfied any remediation they needed during their senior year in high school.

After the initial assessment, intervention methods were implemented -- including the use of an artificial-intelligence learning software package in math, combined with a curriculum that provides students with the skills that college-placement tests typically address in math. This approach enabled us to address deficiencies and retest students during the normal college application process.

The initial results of the pilot indicated a 63 percent increase in students testing into college-level courses, compared with the previous year's results from Hampton Bays students applying to Suffolk County Community College.

Whether this approach could work on a bigger scale remains to be seen. But this pilot has caused us to consider if high school juniors should take college placement tests in order to gauge where they are at that point. The results from such testing could then be used to determine whether they need to remediate during their junior year, to better prepare for college-level work. In any event, the results are evidence that when high schools and colleges communicate -- and then take the necessary action -- we can contribute to the overall academic success of Suffolk County students.

 

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If we want such initiatives to spread across our state and the country, it will take a commitment to funding. Dedicating grant funding, along with identifying specific assessment metrics, would have a long-term, meaningful impact on designing an approach that works. Providing funds for community colleges to address this issue is not just about economics, but about quality of life. We must target remediation in ways that are both transformative and inclusive.

This is a critical link in the nation's continued prosperity; advanced education leads to enhanced earnings for the individual, as well as growth and jobs, both locally and globally. Information and critical thinking remain at the core of innovation and change.

Our ultimate goal is to continue to build a world-class educational system that taps into the human potential of New York State. But this entire effort must be seen as a responsibility for all -- and a game changer, instead of just another experiment. Working together and throughout the state with clear guidelines and expectations, our children will indeed be the benefactors of a transformation that is long overdue.

Chancellor Zimpher's proposal to begin this conversation is a bold and forward-looking idea. When it comes to addressing remediation, it's all about early, consistent attention to reading, writing and arithmetic.