Sylvan Learning Systems is conducting a trial at Howard County Community College of a potentially lucrative new line of business -- teaching remedial courses on the nation's college campuses.
Douglas Becker, president of Columbia-based Sylvan, confirmed yesterday that the company quietly launched a series of remedial math courses in cooperation with the community college at the beginning of this academic year.
Mr. Becker said the pilot program -- never publicly announced but advertised in the community college's catalog -- is intended to determine whether there would be a market for Sylvan's services in higher education.
"It's tremendously premature to judge whether it's a good fit, but the preliminary findings are pretty encouraging," Mr. Becker said.
Sylvan, whose core business is a nationwide chain of tutoring centers for children, has also emerged in recent years as the nation's leading provider of computerized educational testing services. It has also won praise for its tutoring programs in public schools in Baltimore and elsewhere.
Mr. Becker said his company was prompted to explore opportunities in higher education by articles reporting that about one-third of the nation's entering college students required remedial instruction.
"We've really been in a research mode -- talking to people in universities around the country, talking to community colleges around the country," said Mr. Becker. He said the company has found that most colleges would rather devote their staff resources to college-level instruction than remedial teaching.
The Sylvan executive declined to give any projections of potential revenues from the university market, noting that the company's comments are restricted by rules governing its pending secondary stock offering.
"It's a very, very large market," he said.
Mr. Becker said that for now Sylvan was only offering math instruction but would like to offer other remedial subjects in the future.
The math courses at Howard County Community College are being led by certified teachers under contract with Sylvan, he said.
Carol Copenhaver, the community college's senior vice president and dean of instruction, said the Sylvan "experiment" is now serving about 95 students.
Dr. Copenhaver said that about 80 percent of the college's entering freshmen require remedial instruction and that about 65 percent 70 percent usually pass those courses.
"We're looking for solutions that might work better for students than our traditional methods," she said.
Dr. Copenhaver said Sylvan's classes have a student-to-instructor ratio of 6-to-1, where a typical remedial class at the college would usually have one instructor for 22 to 24 students.
Because of the small ratio, the course fee for the Sylvan classes is $150, compared with $35 for standard remedial classes, she said.
She said the trial program in math instruction will continue through the academic year to determine whether Sylvan's program yields significant gains.