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Underprepared high school grads spend $1.3 billion on remedial college courses, and Californians pay the most

Craig Clough | September 28, 2016

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GRADUATIONMillions of high school graduates are showing up to college unprepared and in need of remedial courses that are costing them an estimated $1.3 billion annually, and Californians pay the most, according to a report released today from the Center for American Progress.

Remedial courses do not count toward college degrees because they are designed to catch students up to the minimum standards of the college and cover material that students should have learned in high school. The report found that students who must take these remedial classes are less likely to graduate.

“What our takeaways were from this report, No. 1, students aren’t prepared for college-level work,” said Laura Jimenez, director of Standards and Accountability at the Center for American Progress, at a roundtable discussion of the report that took place today at East Los Angeles College. “We really shouldn’t need remedial education for recent high school graduates. They really should have the skills they need to enter into credit-bearing coursework.”

In California, the estimated out-of-pocket cost for students taking remedial courses was $205 million, by far the most in the nation, and the state had the 13th worst remediation rate, with 47 percent of all first-time students in the 2013-14 school year enrolled in college remediation courses.

Students needing remedial courses are not limited to only those that struggled to get through high school. Nationally, the report found that an estimated 40 percent to 60 percent of first-year college students require remediation in English, math or both.

The report also found “the problem is worse for low-income students and students of color, whose rates of remedial education enrollment are higher than for their white and higher income peers. According to a recent study, 56 percent of African-American students and 45 percent of Latino students enroll in remedial courses nationwide, compared with 35 percent of white students.”

Gerson Liahut-Sánchez, an undocumented Latino student at East Los Angeles College and a graduate of LA Unified’s Garfield High School, spoke during the panel discussion and said he was shocked when he found out he needed remedial education in college.

“Back in high school, I thought that I was on top of the world. I was taking advanced placement courses, which is the quote unquote college equivalent for a high school student to take,” he said. “And so I thought, ‘Hey, I am college ready.’ I was ready to go out there and take over whatever college or university that I end up going to. My reality changed.”

The report offered a number of suggestions on how to fix the problem, and chief among them was the implementation of higher academic standards in English and math, such as the Common Core State Standards, which California has adopted.

Jimenez suggested that California should consider adopting the A through G standards statewide, calling the idea “low-hanging fruit.” A-G is a set of courses that students need to take and pass with a C grade or better for acceptance into California’s public universities. LA Unified adopted the standards as a graduation requirement last year, although it allows D grades to count toward graduation.

“Anytime we see more alignment with clarity, I think it makes the pathway for opportunity all that more available to students,” Frances Gipson, LA Unified’s chief academic officer, told LA School Report when asked if she supported the idea. Gipson also participated in the panel discussion.

The report did not estimate if the level of students needing remedial courses has grown and focused only on the current state of the problem. It also did not deeply analyze why so many students are coming to college unprepared. While several panelists offered possible solutions, there was no clear answer as to how to address the problem nationally.

“There is no one answer. We know there are a few,” Jimenez told LA School Report. “We know that the rigor of standards within the K-12 system has a heck of a lot to do with how prepared students are. Most states adopted either Common Core or college and career ready standards. They set their own standards and they set their own cut scores for the tests that were aligned with those standards. There were states where a 30 percent was passing on an assessment, and 30 percent on a test is very clearly a fail.”

Los Angeles’ community colleges may soon be getting a better sense if LA Unified’s graduates are college ready, thanks to a new program beginning in the fall of 2017 in which any LA Unified graduate will be offered a free year of tuition at any Los Angeles Community College District school. Scott Svonkin, president of the board of trustees of the community college district, told LA School Report the program is expected to bring an estimated 7,000 additional students from LA Unified into the college district’s schools.

“Will there be a spike in remediation? Possibly. But if the students in LA Unified continue to improve, we won’t see a spike, because they will come in, they will go to an LA community college full time, they will get a free education for a year and they will get through faster with less debt,” Svonkin said.

However, any student who requires remedial courses may still have to pay for them.

“I don’t know that we have worked out that detail yet,” Svonkin said when asked if the free tuition program would cover remedial courses. “I believe it is for college-level classes, so their first year of eligibility will be when they get to the college level. But we expect if you graduate with a high school diploma from an LA Unified school and go straight to college, you should be college ready.”

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