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SUNY finds too many not ready for college

SUNY Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher calls the university's

SUNY Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher calls the university's plan to offer a three-year graduation program a national model for the future of higher education. (April 23, 2010) Credit: Ed Betz

It's a sad and well-known fact that far too many high school students get to college and need remedial courses to get up to speed. Eradicating that need for remediation may seem impossible, but it's the goal that Nancy Zimpher, the chancellor of the State University of New York, set out in her State of the University speech last week. She's correct to aim high, but fixing this problem won't be easy.

Take Suffolk County Community College, for one example. The percentage of its new students needing remediation rose from 48.7 percent in the fall of 2002 to 61.3 percent this past fall. The college also compiled data showing that the more remedial courses students take, the worse their chances of graduating. At Nassau Community College, the percentage of students attending college for the first time who needed remedial courses was between 71 percent and 72 percent for fall 2008 through fall 2011.

Remedial courses are expensive for the system. Zimpher said that SUNY spends $70 million a year on remediation, mostly in its community colleges. By way of comparison, Zimpher said that state support for all of the system's eight agriculture and technology campuses totals $63.6 million.

It's no bargain for the students, either. They have to pay for these courses, which don't count toward their degree. Those costs pile up more and more student loan debt -- for material that they should have learned in high school.

The state's Board of Regents recognizes the scope of the remediation problem and is studying it intensely. One thing the Regents have found is that, even though a school district may have a good graduation rate, its students may not be doing well enough on key test scores. The Regents believe that students who graduate from high school with scores below 80 on the math Regents exam and below 75 on the English exam will probably need to take remedial courses in college.

So, what to do? Wisely, Zimpher wants to avoid pointing accusatory fingers at K-12 schools. What she does want is to foster greater cooperation between college and high school faculties. Suffolk is an example. The college has been working with an East End school district, sending its math faculty to work with the high school teachers, to make sure the design of math courses really gets students ready for college.

Another hopeful sign is the Smart Scholars Early College High School Program. These schools link with SUNY campuses, like Farmingdale State College and the SUNY College at Old Westbury, so that students can take college courses in high school, to help them make the transition to college.

In our competitive world, we can't afford to have so many new college students learning what they should have learned in high school. Zimpher did well to highlight this issue in her mostly upbeat report on SUNY. To solve the remediation problem, her vision of greater cooperation between SUNY and K-12 educators must become a reality.