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Amy Dalrymple, Forum News Service, Published September 19 2010

Are college students prepared? The trends say no

Local college instructors call it an alarming trend.

More and more students are coming to college unprepared, requiring them to retake courses they should have mastered in high school.

In the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System, about half of community college students and nearly one-third of students take at least one remedial course.

The need is greatest for math, but many students also require extra classes in writing or reading.

Don Drummond, a math instructor at Minnesota State Community and Technical College in Moorhead, said one concern is that students end up paying for classes that don’t count toward a college degree.

“If somehow they could get the message while they were in high school, the cost and the time commitment just to get to that college-level course, it adds up,” Drummond said. “And that’s what students finally see when they get here.”

College preparation should also be a concern for taxpayers, said Dogan Comez, chairman of the math department at North Dakota State University.

“Students were supposed to learn some certain material before coming to the university,” Comez said. “Remediation means that we are teaching those students the same thing again.”

Statistics show that the need for remedial or developmental education is growing.

In Minnesota, 33 percent of high school graduates from the Class of 1999 who attended public higher education needed at least one remedial course, according to a report by MnSCU. That grew to 38 percent in 2005. A report with more current data is due out this fall.

Similar data is not available for the North Dakota University System because the campuses have not had consistent definitions of remedial education, said Michel Hillman, vice chancellor for academic and student affairs.

He said the system recently adopted standard definitions that will take effect in fall 2011.

At NDSU, about 13 percent of freshmen taking math this semester are enrolled in introductory algebra or intermediate algebra, courses that do not count toward a degree, numbers provided by Comez show.

NDSU also considers college algebra, trigonometry and pre-calculus to be remedial math courses, but students can earn degree credit for those courses, Comez said.

By his estimation, the percent of freshmen in math this semester who are taking remedial courses is about 55 percent.

“This is, in my opinion, shocking,” Comez said. “These students, when they graduate high school, are supposed to know this.”

Because of the demand for remedial courses, many new NDSU students are taught in large lecture formats with more than 100 to a class.

“I don’t have money to hire as many lecturers and faculty as I wish to,” Comez said. “That’s the reality, unfortunately.”

To supplement the instruction, NDSU has graduate students teach an extra problem-solving hour that’s broken into smaller subsections. Tutors are also available.

New college students are often surprised to be placed in remedial courses, officials say.

Paul Carney, an English instructor at the Fergus Falls campus of MSCTC, has studied the high school grades of the students on his campus who are placed in remedial writing.

Twenty percent of them received A’s in their last high school English course, and 45 percent had B’s, Carney’s research shows.

“GPA, class rank, honor roll are not predictors of college success,” Carney said. “Parents and students put too much confidence in those measures.”

MSCTC is working on new pilot programs to help students in developmental courses to be more successful.

One that will launch this spring is a math course that will let students learn at their own pace, said Trish Schrom, MSCTC interim vice president of learning services.

“We’d like to increase the success rate for those students because that’s important not only for us in terms of a college, but that’s important for the community to make them a contributor to the economic engine,” Schrom said.

About this series: College readiness

This is the first story in an occasional series on college readiness. This story offers an overview of the need for remedial education at area college campuses. Future stories will explore reasons why students aren’t ready for college, programs area schools are beginning to offer and possible solutions.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Amy Dalrymple at (701) 241-5590