Older, remedial students strain Florida colleges

Older, returning students who require remediation are straining Florida’s community colleges, reports the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting. From 2004 to 2011, Florida’s remedial education costs rose from $118 million to $168 million. The vast majority of “developmental” students have been out of school for at least a year or two: In the 2010-11 school year, 85 percent of students taking remedial classes were age 20 or older.

The recession accelerated the trend.

Laid-off workers and those . . . who want to train for new lines of work or bolster their résumés, have been flooding onto college campuses. It isn’t just the weak job market that has been encouraging them to do this. The federal government is providing record amounts of financial aid.

Most have rusty academic skills, especially in math. Four of every five first-year, full-time students over 20 had to take remedial math courses. For those 35 and older, the rate increased to 90 percent.

Hunter R. Boylan, director of the National Center for Developmental Education, says older students’ need for remedial math is natural. “You read every day, but when was the last time someone said, ‘Excuse me, Can you help me solve a polynomial equation?’ ” Boylan said. “It’s a skill that atrophies quickly and because it is not used regularly, it goes away.”

President Obama has promoted easier access to education for disadvantaged students and expanded Pell Grants by more than $15 billion. In Florida, the number of students receiving federal financial aid and taking remedial classes more than doubled from 2007 to 2011.

Older students taking remedial courses said the availability of financial aid was a determining factor in deciding to go to college.

José Ramos is one of them. Ramos is a phlebotomist — that’s the person who takes blood samples for health tests. A Pell Grant enabled Ramos, 46, to pursue a nursing degree at St. Petersburg College. “Being the only provider in a household and for what I make, you can’t survive and go to school,” said Ramos, a father of four. “Normally, right now, I wouldn’t be in school. I’d be working two jobs supporting my family and not able to see my son grow up like I did my daughter.”

. . . Financial aid allowed Ramos to reduce his hours at work and concentrate on his studies. But his education has also taken longer than he anticipated due to his need for remedial math. Ramos didn’t score high enough in math on the entrance exam to take college-level algebra.

Patricia Smith, who oversees the campus learning lab, says many older students don’t make it through the remedial sequence. A 2007 state analysis estimated half of remedial students drop out before qualifying for college-level classes. The rate is higher for older students, instructors say. In some cases, laid-off workers find new jobs. In others, students are pulled away from college by family problems, part-time jobs and, for veterans, post-traumatic stress disorder.

Older students who stick with it are “more focused,” says Smith. “They will help bring up the younger students in the class and actually act as nurturers and be great role models for younger students.”