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Should Minnesota colleges ditch remedial classes?

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Reading instructor Jan Bayer
Normandale Community College reading instructor Jan Bayer discuss a reading selection with students in a developmental reading class on Tuesday, March 24, 2015.
Alex Friedrich | MPR News

College students who take remedial classes at state-run colleges and universities could soon find themselves in regular college-level courses instead under a proposal being considered at the Capitol.

  Weaker students would do better if they took classes with the rest of the student body while getting some extra help on the side, some lawmakers say. And they'd save money by avoiding remedial classes, which cost as much as standard courses but don't offer students credit toward a degree.

  "We're trying to develop a system that is more student-focused," said Sen. Greg Clausen, DFL-Apple Valley, a former high school principal who wrote the bill.

  Currently, students at state-run colleges take a placement test before enrolling. Their performance on the test — as well as their scores on the ACT, if they've taken it — determines whether they can take college-level courses. 

If they don't make the cut, they're assigned remedial courses in areas such as math, reading and writing.

  One in six Minnesota students is in remedial education — usually at a two-year college, according to the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system. Almost two-thirds of those take one or two classes, data from the state Office of Higher Education shows.

  Such students pay more than $1,000 on average in tuition and fees for remedial classes, which offer no credit toward a degree — even as students use their state financial aid to pay for these courses.

  Sherry Berry, a 39-year-old stay-at-home mother in St. Paul, says she went to Century College in 2009 to become a nurse after years of being away from school. She says she took remedial math and reading but quit in frustration after two semesters.

  "It was a waste of time," she said. "I knew that stuff."

  Such stories are what concern lawmakers — that too many students get fed up with the slog of remedial courses they may not need and end up dropping out.

  Developmental education costs the MnSCU system more than $65 million a year, or 4.4 percent of its general budget.

  For that money, the state sees 20 percent of its remedial students graduate within three years. That's twice the national average cited by Complete College America, a national nonprofit that aims to increase college graduation rates.

Reading instructor Jan Bayer
Normandale Community College reading instructor Jan Bayer talks to her class about themes in the book "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat."
Alex Friedrich | MPR News

  Still, it's far below the 41 percent graduation rate for MnSCU students who don't take developmental courses.

  "It's a concern," said state Commissioner of Higher Education Larry Pogemiller. "It's clear there's work that needs to be done."

  Sen. Clausen says that under his bill, MnSCU's governing Board of Trustees would establish a tiered system for students that would "minimize" the use of developmental education.

  First, campuses would improve how they measure students' abilities, he said. Students would discuss their options with counselors, he said, but would ultimately have the final decision on whether to take remedial classes.

  The weakest students would still have access to developmental courses, he said. But stronger students, for example, might take regular college classes and receive tutoring on the side. Others might take a regular class alongside a supplemental course to bring them up to speed in that subject, he said.

  Students would have to pay for the extra help, he said, but at a much lower rate.

  "There's a lot of different models you can use," Clausen said. "Each institution needs to take a good look at what might work for them and what resources they have."

  Several MnSCU campuses, he said, "have already begun moving in that direction or have moved in that direction."

  Complete College America Vice President Bruce Vandal told legislators in February that a handful of states, including Colorado, Indiana and Connecticut, have recently adopted similar approaches.  

In Indiana, Vandal said, 55 to 65 percent of remedial-level students are now completing their first college-level math, reading or writing courses in one semester. Before the reforms, he said, it took students three years to complete such a course and far fewer did it. 

  Some MnSCU faculty members and administrators say they worry the proposed changes might push some students into college-level classes too soon.

  "That's where we're so concerned — this idea that students will get crammed into a model that doesn't meet their needs," said Kevin Lindstrom, head of the union representing faculty at the state's two-year colleges.

  Normandale Community College President Joyce Ester says she hopes the proposal doesn't scrap the current remedial system, and that it leaves colleges the flexibility to craft their own reforms.

  "That's a concern — that we would lose the flexibility ... to do the very things that we [know] will help our students," she said.

  Pakou Yang, MnSCU's director of college readiness, expressed similar concerns.

Anjelica Eyton-Cadogan
Normandale Community College student Anjelica Eyton-Cadogan of Burnsville, right, reads along as instructor Jan Bayer.
Alex Friedrich | MPR News

  "The bill directs a 'one size fits all' approach," she wrote in an email.

  Not all students are eager to scrap the current system. At Normandale, several said they felt comfortable in the classes, and could identify with their peers. Being put into college-level classes, they said, would be intimidating.

  Anjelica Eyton-Cadogan of Burnsville, a 22-year-old aspiring dental hygienist taking three remedial classes at Normandale, said she learns best with books. A bad experience in high school has turned her off to tutoring, and she hopes a new system wouldn't force her to use that method.

  "It's not really going to work very well," she said.