Reformers use new ways to tackle college readiness

Posted Aug. 16, 2011, at 6:23 p.m.

Trey Rasmussen excelled at hockey at his Martha’s Vineyard high school. Academics, not so much.

“I was planning on graduating and just jumping right into construction,” said the 20-year-old who earned mostly Cs. “I crunched the numbers and figured how much money I’d be making, so why the heck not. A lot of kids go to college and spend all sorts of money and never graduate.”

His older brother was among them and Trey worried about the financial burden of college on his family if he, too, attempted it and failed. Thanks to a tip from his hockey coach, he never had to find out.

The coach told him about a private, yearlong bridge program for boys, Bridgton Academy in North Bridgton, Maine. There he learned what he should have in high school and received thoughtful attention to get him college ready.

It worked. With an interest in business administration, Trey just happily completed his freshman year at Salve Regina University in Newport, R.I., with a 3.0 average. The son of a Montessori preschool teacher and a summer home caretaker is now on track to be the first in his family to graduate from college.

“That was the best money I ever spent,” said Trey’s mom, Christeen. “I knew that had I sent him to college right from high school he probably would have been home by Christmastime.”

But such remediation comes at a cost to students and taxpayers at a time when some researchers estimate about two-thirds of all new jobs in the U.S. require some postsecondary schooling. At Bridgton, tuition, room and board is $42,000 — out of reach for many families, even with financial aid.

Trey is among thousands of students to face the problem. Roughly one of every three entering a public two- or four-year postsecondary school will have to take at least one remedial course. Doing so dramatically increases the odds that he or she won’t graduate, according to a March report from the nonprofit Alliance for Excellent Education.

“We have a real preparation problem in middle and high school for kids on the bubble,” said the group’s president, Bob Wise, a former congressman and governor of West Virginia. “It’s a duplication of resources. Everybody loses.”

An analysis by the American Institute for Research, another nonprofit, shows that states spent more than $1.4 billion and the federal government more than $1.5 billion on educational grants to students who did not return to college for a second year between 2003 and 2008.

Wise and other reformers have set their sights on better aligning high school and college coursework to eliminate the need for remediation altogether.

At South Texas College, with campuses throughout largely Hispanic Hidalgo and Starr counties near the Mexico border, about 3,000 new students register each fall. Of those, about half require one or more “developmental courses” covering basic skills, said Juan Mejia, the vice president of academic affairs.

So the college decided to partner with every public school district in its area to offer dual enrollment in high schools, a practice with momentum around Texas and across the country but more often involving high achievers looking to score early college credit.

The college sends instructors into high schools, or uses existing faculty there, and deputizes them as “adjuncts” to provide extra coursework in exchange for modest honoraria. The students earn South Texas College credit and complete the work along with their regular high school course load while staying on track to graduate on time.

The inexpensive approach is aimed at eliminating the need and cost of postsecondary remediation courses that don’t earn college credit, a significant problem for students.

“These are those students that may be first generation, that may be high risk, that with a little bit more help may be successful in college,” Mejia said. “We give them a lot of help.”

For Mauricio Perez, 22, in McAllen, Texas, that meant working on his English. He’s been in the U.S. only four years from his native Mexico. His high school grades improved with his newfound language skills and he graduated high school on time. Perez now attends South Texas full time, with an eye on becoming a high school Spanish teacher.

“I thought if I did well in high school why not do well in college,” he said.

The need for remediation rears even in select four-year schools, though they’re more reluctant to talk about it, said Peter Alcock, a former vice chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education.

He’s a member of the advisory board for the Massachusetts-based Families United in Educational Leadership, a nonprofit that serves more than 250 families in Boston, Chelsea and Lynn. The FUEL program piloted an approach at Chelsea High School to have college-bound students take the College Board’s Accuplacer exam by the end of 10th grade.

Accuplacer is a placement test in reading, writing and math developed 25 years ago by the College Board, which administers the SAT and other standardized tests. Through FUEL, Chelsea High was connected with Bunker Hill Community College to have students take Accuplacer in the 10th grade to provide any help identified before high school graduation.

Jonell Sanchez, senior director for Accuplacer, said the College Board launched a pilot program in June where a diagnostic version of the test can be given to 10th or 11th graders and coupled with targeted tutorials, interactive instruction and practice exercises offering instant feedback at Pearson’s MyFoundationsLab online.

“We’re saying do something about it before you get there,” Sanchez said. “This way a student can learn piece by piece. That’s crucial.”

Public colleges and universities already stretched financially have a lot to gain from putting the remediation problem to rest, yet policymakers can’t agree on a strategy.

“A lot of states are working on these issues but it’s not a unified approach,” Alcock said. “The approach to this is fragmented.”

On the Flathead Indian Reservation in Pablo, Mont., Salish Kootenai College decided that its largely older student population had a lot of remediation to offer among its own ranks, so the school set up group peer mentorship, said Noel Harmon, a senior program manager for the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a nonprofit that helps low income, minority and other historically underrep resented groups gain access to postsecondary schooling.

Strong readers, for example, help those struggling to strengthen basic skills necessary for college — and for life.

“If possible, they move them through to the next level of courses together,” Harmon said. “That helps the students form relationships and learn from one another. That’s a real shift in terms of the way students view developmental education. They’re doing great things with limited resources.”

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