Colleges try new fixes to remedial education

Colleges are taking alternative approaches to remedial classes.

After leaving high school as a teen mother, Ashley McCullough is back on track to receive a two-year degree and work as a respiratory therapist. But she first had to conquer a remedial math class and its core lessons on addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division — the same basic skills her now 6-year-old daughter will soon start to learn in elementary school.

“I didn’t have my act together,” the 23-year-old said. “I had a baby at 16.”

McCullough is far from alone at Missouri State University-West Plains, a two-year school nestled in the southern Missouri Ozarks near the Arkansas border where roughly three out of every four students take at least one remedial class.

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That’s well above the national estimates of remedial participation rates of 20 percent to 30 percent at four-year schools and more than 50 percent at community colleges.

And like their counterparts at public flagship universities, rural teacher colleges, and urban commuter campuses, many of McCullough’s classmates will drop out before advancing to the next course, let alone graduate or move on to a four-year school.

It’s forcing those on the front lines to try dramatically different approaches, from tweaking the standards that determine who needs extra help to allowing remedial students to simultaneously take the introductory classes they were once barred from.

The changes come as impatient lawmakers in states such as Connecticut, Kansas, Ohio, and Tennessee are restricting or eliminating remedial classes at public colleges, or even threatening to withhold money from schools that don’t do a better job of preparing unprepared students for the rigors of college.

In Washington, D.C., President Barack Obama has challenged two-year and four-year schools to improve workforce training and college completion rates.

“When you have 35 percent of students passing your course, that is not acceptable,” said Missouri State math specialist Thora Broyles. “Something had to be done.”

At West Plains, the first step was hiring an administrator to focus solely on what practitioners prefer to call developmental education, rather than assign the task to a disinterested or overburdened faculty member.