Taking a stand for standards Remedial instruction dilutes the quality of the institution

Debating remedial education: Two views on the value of providing basics for underprepared college students.

June 07, 1998|By Louise Mirrer

In the wake of a recent decision by the City University of New York Board of Trustees, all remedial instruction will soon be phased out at the system's senior colleges. This is a bold, and to many, a shocking move, for it comes at a time when increasing numbers of students are entering the nation's public colleges and universities with inadequate preparation for the demands of college-level work.

At the City University last year, 41 percent of first-time freshmen at the bachelor's degree level required at least one remedial course.

The figures for other large public systems are comparable. About half of California State University freshmen failed basic skills placement exams in English or math this year and had to take remedial course work. The two large systems are far from alone in finding that many students are in need of additional preparation for college work. More than 80 percent of all public higher-education, four-year institutions in the United States offer remedial instruction to under-prepared students.

With such a dismaying picture of student preparation, the rationale for eliminating remedial instruction at the City University's senior colleges has been questioned. Some have seen the move as part of a local political agenda, particularly as the university has been the recipient of a great deal of criticism from New York's most prominent politicians. Yet most states have been trying to eliminate or restrict remediation in baccalaureate programs. The California State system approved a plan in February 1996 to reduce the percentage of students in need of pre-collegiate work from 45 percent to 11 percent over 11 years. State universities in Florida do not provide remedial education. The City University began limiting remediation at its senior colletes in 1995, allowing colleges to offer no more than one year of remedial instruction and prohibiting students from failing a remedial course more than once. So CUNY's new policy cannot be explained either as idiosyncratic or as solely a response to current political winds in New York.

What has promoted such intense scrutiny of remedial education courses and programs is largely the result of a national preoccupation with raising standards. It's a common perception among those who support CUNY's new policy that even a relatively small amount of remedial instruction (it was about 4 percent at CUNY this year) dilutes the educational quality of the institution. With no remedial instruction offered, course work is dedicated exclusively to the college level, with students expected to begin taking college-level classes immediately. For some years now, CUNY administrators, trustees and a number of faculty members have maintained that the university's policies need to ensure there is an appropriate fit between a college's academic programs and the profile of the students admitted. Thus, one of the options to be offered CUNY students who fail to demonstrate readiness for college-level work is to receive remedial instruction at a CUNY community college, then enroll in a senior college after skills tests have been passed.

A year before the decision to eliminate remediation at the CUNY senior colleges was made, one of the system's colleges had articulated the position that students must be adequately prepared for college-level work to succeed in its programs. Baruch College administrators found that relatively few students who required extensive remediation completed the college's degree requirements even after such remediation was offered. As a result, Baruch introduced admissions standards that reflected "a careful strategy of matching the expectations for a Baruch degree with the level of preparation which students have when they enter the College." Baruch also removed all remediation from the college's curriculum to create "a seamless fabric between resource allocations, admissions, curriculum, retention, and graduation requirements."

CUNY's mission is defined by state education law in terms of two commitments: The first is to "academic excellence and the provision of equal access and opportunity for students, faculty and staff from all ethnic and racial groups and from both sexes," and the second is to being "responsive to the needs of its urban environment."

Although CUNY's move to eliminate remedial instruction from the senior colleges is not unique in the nation, the new policy and its implementation will be closely monitored by many other institutions. The policy will force a redefinition of CUNY's role in admitting and providing education and services to students in need of remedial work. And it will challenge CUNY to find new ways of honoring its guarantee of access to New Yorkers, along with excellence.

Louise Mirrer is Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs at the City University of New York.

Pub Date: 6/07/98

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