The New California System of Remediation of College Students

Dr. Linda Serra Hagedorn,  University of Southern California
he higher education news is full of stories about New York's latest 
decision to phase-out remedial education at 9 of the 11 City University 
of New York (CUNY System) campuses.  Remedial education will be the 
responsibility of the already overworked New York State community 
college system.  

Although this decision is being heralded as drastic it apparently has 
escaped many that California has already adopted a similar plan.  
California has a somewhat unique system of postsecondary institutions.  
Basically there are three layers of institutions each with a different 
mission and culture.  At the top of the hierarchy of prestige is the 
University of California system (UC).  On average, the ten UC campuses 
accept only the best-prepared students - those that graduated in the 
upper 12% of their high school classes.  Next in line is the California 
State System (CSU).  These 23 campuses are the middle-ground --  
typically open to those who graduate in the upper half of their high 
school class.  At the bottom of the heap come the 107 community colleges 
with their open admission policies.  In total, the California system 
follows what Burton Clark labeled as the "Master Plan."  Although not 
an official part of the Master Plan, most students who transfer from 
the community colleges enter the California State System.
  
The level of required remediation (i.e., the teaching of content and 
skills expected to be learned in high school) has been increasing 
drastically at all levels especially at the California State University 
System campuses.  Certainly, being in the upper half of a high school 
graduating class does not guarantee students will be performing 
college-level work.  Remedial courses present special problems.  First, 
there is the question of college credit.  Do courses containing content 
pitched at a pre-college audience deserve college credit?  Secondly, 
many students must repeat remedial courses because they cannot or do not 
grasp the content on their first try.  Here the question is how to 
incorporate the repeated classes in the calculation of grade point 
averages and how many chances should a student receive?.  In addition, 
there is the problem of funding.  Is it fair for the taxpayers to 
subsidize the education of students in remedial coursework?  After all, 
the students were initially subsidized during their high school (and 
elementary) years when the content was supposedly first presented 
(assuming the student was enrolled in a public school).  Now, the 
taxpayers are asked to subsidize the students AGAIN because the first 
(or second, or third) attempt did not hit fertile ground.  Yet another 
problem is staffing.  Many college teachers are less than enthusiastic 
to teach remedial courses.  Subsequently, a substantial number of courses 
are staffed by adjuncts or instructors with minimal experience.  The 
picture therefore develops: the students needing the most help are being 
taught by the most inexperienced (new) and/or the most under-supported 
(adjunct) professors.  All of these problems equaled a need for policy 
examination and change.
  
Last year the California State University System changed its policy.  
Students are now given one year to either "catch-up" or "get-out."  
In other words, remedial courses are still available but are now rationed 
and available to a student only for a one-year period.  If the student 
can be "remediated" in the one-year span, he or she is then allowed to 
continue to take courses toward the degree.  If, however, the one-year 
window proves to be too narrow, the student must leave.  Students are 
then directed to go to the community colleges to continue the remediation 
process.  Once at college level, students may return to the California 
State University.  This year 44 students had to leave.  

Is this a good policy to handle remediation?  From the view of the 
four-year colleges, I think it is.  Certainly remediation was never meant 
to be an on-going activity and students with the threat of expulsion 
appear to be motivated to advance to the college-level.  In addition, 
it is positive for the California State System professors who are not 
propelled into teaching more and more sub-college courses.  

My concern arises for the reputation and the culture of the community 
colleges.  Community colleges are asked to do a great number of things; 
provide vocational training, provide transfer level college courses, 
interact with the community, provide adult education, just to name a 
few.  In addition, the state of California is predicting a massive 
increase in the number of community college students within the next few 
years.  Labeled "Tidal Wave II" it is anticipated that more than a 
half-million additional students will be knocking at the doors of the 
community colleges with expectations of service.  The new ruling of 
"remediation at the community college" threatens to add even more strain 
to the already bulging walls of most of these campuses.  Further, I am 
concerned that tossing the failures of the CSU system at the doorstep of 
the community colleges does harm to the culture and reputation of an 
institution already at the bottom of the prestige pyramid.  Being a 
professor in a private research university I am very aware of 
postsecondary snobbery.  Community college students (and hence teachers 
and administrators) are seen as less able than their counterparts at 
four-year schools.  To add the burden of remediation only extends the 
image.  Moreover, increasing the number of remedial students may create 
a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Many articles and books have claimed that 
community colleges squash dreams.  Authors contend that students enter 
the community college hoping for a bachelor's degree yet never 
achieving one.  Many students drop out during their community college 
years, others transfer to vocational type training.  Although some 
students transfer to four-year institutions and do very well, the 
majority do not.  What will adding more remedial students do for the 
reputation of the state's community colleges?  Certainly it can only 
add more students with more obstacles to the transfer process.  Again, 
the community colleges will be the scapegoat. 
 
I have no answers, just suggestions.  First, we need to invert (or at 
least equalize) the funding pyramid.  Now, the funding equation in 
California provides the very least for community college students and 
the highest proportions of funding to students at the University of 
California system.  Secondly, we need to re-think success and add more 
gauges than just the transfer to a four-year institution.  Success 
should include factors such as enrolling students from diverse 
backgrounds, or assisting the unemployed to train for gainful employment.  
Finally, we need to cooperate.  The three segments of higher education 
in the state do not work together in a sufficient manner.  The "them 
versus us" mentality should melt into a "we" that would encourage 
partnerships, seamless course-taking patterns, and shared successes 
(and failures).

Remediation is a hot topic now.  Other states are watching New York 
and California very closely and will likely pattern their own programs 
in similar veins.  I urge my state to re-examine the structure that 
alienates its students into three neat and separate boxes (UC, CSU, CC) 
rather than merging them into a single entity: an educated populace.