Overwhelmed with students who need years of remediation, some Texas community colleges are steering low-skilled students to adult education or to vocational programs, reports Melissa Ludwig in the San Antonio Express-News.
“No one is talking about abandoning the students who fall below the threshold of college readiness,” said Raymund Paredes, Texas commissioner of higher education. “But dumping them into (remedial) education is not the solution.”
As open-admissions institutions, community colleges take all applicants from recent high school graduates to adults who haven’t sat in a classroom for decades. Texas uses the Accuplacer test to determine reading, writing and math skills.
Half of students who need remedial math test into the lowest levels, says Jo-Carol Fabianke, associate vice chancellor at the Alamo Colleges. Only 12 percent to 15 percent of low-level remedial math students take a single college-level math class; even fewer complete a degree.
“Quite frankly, we have always thought if someone comes in here, we ought to try to get them to a four-year degree,” Fabianke said. “That is not realistic for everybody.”
Students who lack the academic skills to complete an associate or bachelor’s degree have a much better chance if they tackle a vocational certificate in fields such as welding or medical assisting. Others need to work on very low reading and math skills.
“We are talking about students reading at the fifth-grade level,” Paredes said. “They need basic reading instruction. Those are areas of expertise you do not find on a college or university campus.”
The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board is funding pilot projects to build partnerships between adult education and community colleges.
PACE combines adult basic education and college readiness skills into a 10-to 14-week program that gets students ready for college while earning a GED or strengthening English language skills.
Ten students completed the first course this fall. All but one showed significant improvement on placement tests, said Jennifer Swoyer, program coordinator.
However, the program’s small classes are expensive and there may be no funding to continue it.
Megan Thompson, 24, dropped out of high school and had not been in a classroom in more than six years. She enrolled in PACE to get her GED and go to the Alamo Colleges to become a radiology technician. Her initial scores put her math skills at the lowest level, which would have required four semesters of remedial classes had she gone to the Alamo Colleges right away.
After completing PACE, Thompson tested into college-level math and English and will not have to take any remedial classes.
“It would have been quite a struggle to add that much time onto my college, and pay for it, and be a single mom on top of that,” she said.
Many of the new crop of students are from Mexico, Iran and Iraq. Some have earned degrees in their home country but still have trouble reading and writing in English.
Ivonne Gonzalez, 38, moved to the United States from Mexico City due to her husband’s job. In Mexico, she had a degree and was an administrator at a food canning plant. Here, she is a housewife.
“I want to be someone here. I want to do something,” Gonzalez said.
Students said the program works because the classes are small, the teachers are great and they get lots of attention.
But small classes and faculty attention are expensive, said Bruce Leslie, chancellor of the Alamo Colleges. With state lawmakers facing a $27 billion budget shortfall this legislative session, colleges need to make improvements with fewer dollars, not more.
Grant-funded pilot projects “give you the opportunity to experiment, but the problem is the money runs out,” Leslie said. “You are expected to either pick it up or stop doing it.”
Even the concept of tracking students would require intensive staff training, and possibly hiring more advisers.
“We can’t replace one high-cost program with another high-cost program,” Leslie said.
If school officials can find a place for these types of programs on campus, they could get state reimbursement for the students, he said.
Ultimately, the more successful schools are at keeping students enrolled, the more money they will receive from the state. That’s especially true if lawmakers pass a bill that would carve out 10 percent of formula funding and tie it to degree production and other student success milestones.
In the meantime, schools must work within their means.
“There is not going to be more money,” Fabianke said. “We just have to be smarter.”