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Not yet ready for college

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Johanna Workman

A third of first-year American college students require at least one remedial course, according to the U.S. Department of Education. At the community college level, about two-thirds of students enter needing at least one remedial course in math, English or reading, according to 2006-07 data. In Utah, 20 percent of first-time freshmen attending public colleges and universities in the 2008 academic year took at least one remedial course. That's better than the national average but suggests that one-fifth of college freshmen weren't fully prepared for college.

Nationwide, far too many high school graduates are unprepared for the rigors of college, particularly in mathematics. While many states claim their high school graduates have achieved grade-level mastery of reading and math, 65 percent of college professors say their states poorly prepare students for college-level work, a 2007 ACT National Curriculum survey found. Somehow, this trend must be reversed.

Some states test students while still in high school to determine what competencies need to be mastered so college remediation is not necessary. This is a smart strategy that makes the best use of public education and higher education resources. Students who are prepared for college-level work will have fewer time and financial impediments to earning their diplomas, since remedial classes do not count toward degree credits.

However, some remedial education is necessary. But there is considerable debate where it should be offered and who should pay for it. Some states do not allow public institutions to provide remedial education, so students who need these courses must take them from private providers. Other states offer the classes only at community colleges.

Whatever the case, policies cannot be so rigid that students who legitimately need additional assistance — nontraditional students, poor students and students who are the first in their families to attend college — cannot get it. An Education Commission of the States report says remediation accounts for less than 1 percent of the total annual higher education budget, so the cost is not overwhelming for colleges.

The report also found that 45 percent of students who took two remedial courses achieved at least an associate degree. Among students who took five or more remedial classes, a surprising 35 percent earned at least an associate degree. Considering President Obama's goal that the U.S. once again lead the world in college degrees, this assistance will be important because only one-third of the nation's students graduate from high school minimally prepared for college.

As higher education budgets continue to shrink, the higher education system should not be devoting a greater share of its resources to teaching curriculum that should have been learned in high school. Individual students ought to take it upon themselves to work harder in high school so their college aspirations are not delayed or made more costly by taking coursework that does not count toward their degrees.