Although their presence ensures steady employment of the professoriat and an excuse for public officials to ratchet up spending on higher education, one might question whether a significant portion of college students should even bother signing up for post-secondary classes at all. “Over one-third of first- and second-year college students have taken remedial courses,” according to the College Board’s Trends in College Pricing.
“Remedial course takers have lower graduation rates and a longer time-to-degree but taking remedial courses increases the chance of graduation,” Sandy Baum of the College Board said at the National Press Club on October 24th. “Students do not generally receive college credit for remedial course work, which inevitably increases the time it takes to earn a degree,” she explained.
Nevertheless, she admits that “There is a significant problem with preparation for college.” Dr. Baum is also an economist at Skidmore.
Of those who take such classes, two-thirds seek instruction in math while more than a quarter take remedial reading courses. A tenth of those requiring remediation need guidance with study skills, which makes you really wonder why they are in college in the first place.
Perhaps they ask themselves the same question, particularly since, as Baum noted, the median debt for college graduates is about $20,000. Here is the “percentage of first- and second-year students taking a remedial course by type of course,” according to the College Board:
“Participation in remedial courses has declined somewhat in recent years, with approximately 51 percent of 1982 high school seniors and 42 percent of 1992 high school seniors who enrolled in postsecondary education taking these courses,” the College Board found. But if the experience of yesterday’s remediated collegians is any guidepost, the future looks rather bleak for their successors.
“Among members of the high school class of 1992 who enrolled in postsecondary education, 58 percent of those who never took remedial courses earned a bachelor’s degree by the year 2000 and another 11 percent earned an associate degree or a certificate,” the College Board learned. “Among those who took remedial reading classes, only 17 percent earned a bachelor’s degree by the year 2000 and another 13 percent earned an associate degree or certificate.”
And the 20-year trend may be deceptive. “The decline occurred among those enrolling in four-year institutions but not among those enrolling in two-year institutions,” according to the College Board’s fact sheets.
That’s not an insignificant caveat; most of those establishments are community colleges. Four out of ten college students attend community colleges, Gaston Caperton told the crowd at the National Press Club.
The former Democratic governor of West Virginia, Caperton now presides over the College Board.
More recently, according to Dr. Baum, “The number of remedial courses are up and the number of students taking them are up.” But those are only the courses that colleges and universities bother to label as remedial.
Four years ago, the National Association of Scholars compiled a study in which researchers compared this century’s college students with high school seniors in the 1950s. “When given a test covering four areas of general knowledge, American college seniors score at about the same overall level as did high school graduates of fifty years ago,” the NAS report. “Today’s seniors do better on questions pertaining to literature, music, and science; about the same on questions about geography, and worse on questions dealing with history.”
“Their personal interest in high culture, measured by questions about their favorite authors and classical music also seems little different than that of the public at large fifty years ago” the NAS noted but concluded, “By almost every measure of cultural knowledge in our survey, today’s college seniors appear to rank far below the college graduates of mid-century.”
Against this backdrop, we should not be surprised to encounter such college writing as the quote from a student evaluation form that Montana State University professor Paul A. Trout reproduces in the November 3, 2006 Chronicle of Higher Education: “For being a 100 level class she used a lot of words that I didn’t know the definition of, she took for granite that we knew the definition of a lot of words & didn’t tell us what they meant.”
Dr. Trout is an associate professor of English at MSU. He has his work cut out for him.
Malcolm A. Kline is the executive director of Accuracy in Academia.