Remedial classes cost Ga. colleges millions

Jessica Lockett is stuck in college limbo.

The 32-year-old is on her fifth attempt to pass a remedial math course at Atlanta Metropolitan College. The nursing major has five classes left to take before earning her degree but she can't take them without passing math.

She's among the nearly 23,000 Georgia college students taking "learning support" classes because they entered college unprepared.

Georgia's colleges are trying to improve remedial education by developing new curricula, requiring students to attend class more often and using technology to provide individualized instruction. But some question whether colleges should even be serving students who can't handle the academic rigor.

Remedial instruction is expensive and many of the students never graduate. The University System of Georgia spends about $22 million annually on these classes, said Virginia Michelich, associate vice chancellor for student achievement.

About one in four Georgia students who take remedial classes earn a bachelor's degree within six years, she said. About 60 percent of all students earn a four-year degree within six years.

Some students are in remedial classes because the lessons they learned to earn a high school diploma don't match the skills they need to succeed in college. Others never learned the material in high school.

Remedial courses rely heavily on worksheets and memorization drills, activities expected in middle school classrooms not on college campuses.

"I didn't like high school and I just didn't care about my education back then," Lockett said. "The thing is, I still passed and I still graduated, but I came out without really knowing anything. I want a college degree, but I just need extra help and time."

The remedial courses are costly for students. They pay hundreds of dollars for them, but the credits don't count toward diploma requirements.

"We do a good job giving everyone an opportunity to earn a college education, but you have to wonder if we're doing a disservice to some of these students," said Willis Potts, chairman of the state Board of Regents, which oversees the university system. "We need better programs and we need to start being more honest and upfront with these students."

By fall 2012 the university system no longer will admit students who need remedial courses in all three areas -- reading, English and math. About 2,100 freshmen were enrolled in all three last fall.

The system will reduce the wait before students can return to college after being dismissed for failing remedial classes from three years to one. Students will have two attempts to pass each reading and English class and three tries to pass two math classes.

Previously students had up to four tries to pass reading and English and five attempts at math. Studies show the less time students spend in remedial classes, the more likely they are to earn a degree, Michelich said.

If students can't succeed after repeated attempts they shouldn't be on campus, Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, said.

"You're entitled to the opportunity, but if you can't handle the work, find another track," said Ehrhart, who heads the state House committee that oversees college budgets.

"You can't expect the state to fund your lack of capacity," Ehrhart said. "For these students college has become a continuation of the K-12 education they never received, and that is not what a college education is supposed to be."

Fabiola Aurelien, an instructor at Atlanta Metro, said it's not fair to penalize college students for what happened in high school.

"We owe it to them to give them the chance as adults that maybe they didn’t have or didn’t take as children," she said. "We don't always know what's best for us when we're young."

The state's remediation rate dropped in the 1990s but increased in recent years as enrollment skyrocketed. Also, the system implemented a pilot program eliminating the SAT requirement at 16 campuses. These colleges tend to enroll older adults, those who work full-time and students who are also caregivers at home. The pilot program is scheduled to end in 2011.

About one in four freshmen -- more than 14,000 students -- took remedial classes last fall, according to the university system.

Atlanta Metro started a free class to provide students with intense teaching and review to help them pass placement tests that determine if they are ready for college-level courses. The program's classes are limited to about 15 students.

The college also expanded the remedial math class to include a third-day lab that meets on Fridays.

"Students like meeting just two days a week but then they go too long without a math lesson," President Gary McGaha said. "They may not like it, but they need to spend more time in class. If they want to learn and succeed they have to put in the work."

During a recent Friday lab, Aurelien divided the students into groups. With some students, she tried a new method to teach a lesson on factoring they struggled with earlier in the week. Other students were on computers taking practice tests or working on the next week's material.

Students were able to solve equations when provided with specific numbers, but once the problem included "x" and "y" they struggled.

"Math has never been my strong point and I've never been a good test-taker," student Brook Hammond said. "I know I can get it. Just give me some extra time and maybe some extra help. We may not all learn the same way, but that doesn't mean we can't all learn the same things."

Math is where students struggle the most -- 19,107 students took remedial math last fall, compared with 7,777 who took remedial English.

South Georgia College is rewriting its math curriculum through the Carnegie Foundation Mathway Project. The plan is to limit students to just one semester of a newly designed remedial math class and then place them in college-level math the following semester. The new curriculum could be in place by next fall, President Virginia Carson said.

Georgia Perimeter College is experimenting with computer programs that allow remedial math students to work at their own pace, said Alan Jackson, interim vice president for academic services. One student may spend two days on a concept while another student might spend a week.

Professors still teach, but students take more responsibility for what they learn, Michelich said.

Jackson said there has been some discussion about requiring students to take advantage of the support services on campus. Only 20 percent of the students who use the tutoring center are in remedial classes even though they would benefit from the extra help, he said.

"Students need good instruction and instructors need students who are willing to do the work," Jackson said. "Students may not be able to do the work at first because they don't have the background. But I'm of the opinion that college is too important to not give these students a real chance at success."

Remedial classes

The University System of Georgia is working to improve remedial math, English and reading courses offered at different campuses.

Georgia Tech, Georgia State and Southern Polytechnic State University didn’t have any students in these classes last fall. Here’s how many students took learning support classes at some other schools:

Institution … Number in learning support … Enrollment … Percent in learning support

University of Georgia … 10 … 34,885 … Less than 1%

Georgia Southern … 77 … 19,086 … Less than 1%

Clayton State … 202 … 6,587 … 3.1%

Kennesaw State … 401 … 22,389 … 1.8%

University of West Georgia … 128 ... 11,500 … 1.1%

Georgia Gwinnett College … 302 … 2,947 … 10.2%

Atlanta Metropolitan College … 1,060 … 2,688 … 39.4%

Georgia Perimeter College … 5,456 … 24,549 … 22.2%

University system total … 23,077 … 301,892 … 7.6%

Source: University System of Georgia, fall 2009.

NOTE: Figures are for all students required to take learning support based on university system requirements.