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Cuts in College Remedial Courses Proposed

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Two major state university systems--in California and New York--have stepped into the center of a national debate with proposals to scale back their responsibility for remedial coursework.

The board of trustees of the California State University system has proposed eliminating remedial classes for students by 2001. And a draft proposal before the trustees of the State University of New York would shift remedial classes from the system's state colleges to its locally operated community colleges.

The proposals come as educators have seen a growing need for remedial coursework for incoming college students. The most recent figures available from the National Center for Education Statistics show that nearly one-third of college freshmen took a remedial course in 1989.

In the face of this need, educators have had to balance concerns about access to higher education with the desire to uphold strong academic standards. (See Education Week, April 12, 1995.)

Although the California and New York proposals remain open for debate, both may be voted on in coming months.

Creating Barriers?

The California proposal would apply to the 22 campuses in the California State University system. That system, which enrolled 319,368 students in the fall of 1994 and has added two new campuses this year, is only one segment of the state's huge system of public higher education. The proposal does not affect institutions in the University of California system, such as UCLA and uc-Berkeley, which generally have more selective admissions standards.

The plan has been publicly discussed over the past month in hearings that included administrators, legislators, teachers, and students from around the state. A joint meeting between the university system's board of trustees, the state's community-college board, and the California board of education was slated for Oct. 31, and the trustees are expected to vote on the issue in January.

Ralph R. Pesqueira, a trustee who is chairing the hearings, said that many of the plan's opponents wrongly fear that Cal State will shut the door on students. "The intent of this has nothing to do with keeping students out," he said. "Our goal is to reduce the need for remedial education."

Almost one-half of the freshmen entering the California State system currently require remedial classes in English or math or both, according to Colleen Bentley-Adler, a spokeswoman for the chancellor's office. Under the proposal, the system would eventually deny admission to students who did not pass entrance tests in both of those subjects.

Ms. Bentley-Adler said the details were not set in stone, but the effort to phase out remedial courses might include instituting a competency test for 11th graders or involving community colleges in remedial education.

She pointed to a statewide rise in student-achievement levels that occurred after the system raised admissions standards in the mid-1980s, and said that elimination of remedial classes could lead to a similar improvement.

Yet, at least one group has expressed concern about that logic. Patrick M. Callan, the executive director of the California Higher Education Policy Center, an independent research group based in San Jose, suggested that if achievement had actually improved, there would be far fewer college students who need remedial help now.

"They're saying the strategy worked great, but our students weren't prepared, so let's do it again," he said. "If it didn't work all that well, why are we embarking on the same strategy?"

Mr. Callan expressed concern that the policy could serve to downsize the university system, rather than raise academic standards. "This is not a time to create barriers, it's a time to help people reach higher standards," he said.

The remedial-education proposal under consideration in New York, offered last month by the system's interim provost, Stephen L. Weber, is part of an effort to save money by restructuring. The SUNY system's board of trustees has yet to approve the plan, but it must report to the legislature on its restructuring efforts by Dec. 1.

Community Colleges' Role

According to Kenneth Goldfarb, a spokesman for the university system's administrators, only about 1 percent of all credit hours taught systemwide are devoted to remedial education.

Mr. Goldfarb said one possibility under discussion is admitting students who need remedial coursework to state colleges but sending them to community colleges to complete those courses.

Hunter R. Boyland, the director of the National Center for Developmental Education at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., expressed concern about this emerging trend.

Shifting remedial courses to community colleges could save very little money in the long run, he warned, especially considering the potential economic impact if some students chose not to finish their educations.

In many cases, Mr. Boyland added, four-year institutions are better equipped to carry out remedial or developmental classes in a cost-effective way.

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