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Real colleges teach real college courses 

State Rep. Donna Hutchinson of Bella Vista says that the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff could keep its football team even if UAPB were converted into a two-year community college. That's insufficient inducement to make demotion appealing to the UAPB chancellor, Lawrence A. Davis Jr. At UALR, which was a junior college once, officials are equally cool to the idea of losing their university status. Indeed, it's likely that none of the state's four-year institutions would submit cheerfully to such a loss of status, and all the institutions have their legislative defenders.

Hutchinson knows that the proposal she's pondering would face stout resistance in the legislature. Still, she considers the issue important enough to justify boldness. She, and other legislators and educators around the country, are concerned about the high number of students taking remedial courses in four-year universities. The purpose of a four-year college is to provide a degree, she says, while “Remediation is to get ready for college.” If students aren't ready for college after 12 years of public schooling — and many of those who want to attend college are not — then it's the job of the community college to make them ready, she says. The community colleges do much remedial work already. Each of the state community colleges has a remediation rate above 50 percent. The average is 77 percent.

Hutchinson thinks that perhaps the community colleges should do all the remediation, that the four-year institutions should be prohibited from teaching remedial courses. “Maybe the universities where more than half of the students are being remediated should be funded as community colleges,” Hutchinson says. She's heard that some Arkansas universities are providing remediation to students who graduated from high school with honors. If the four-year universities were prohibited from teaching remedial courses, and students denied entry to the universities because of it, public school patrons might demand that their high schools do a better job, she said.

State law requires remediation if a student scores below 19 on the ACT, a standardized test, but the institutions can set higher standards. For example, the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville requires a 21 on ACT math in order for a student to be admitted to college algebra. Some remedial courses — which are offered in math, English and reading — don't carry college credit hours, which means they don't get the students any closer to meeting the graduation requirements. These courses only prepare the students to take the regular freshman courses, which do carry credit hours. “It's disappointing to enroll in college and find out you're not getting college credit,” Hutchinson says. She says it's time for Arkansas to drop the pretense that colleges where most of the students are being remediated are real colleges.

“If you go to a college that doesn't offer remediation, the atmosphere is different,” Hutchinson said. “The discussion in classes is different.” The students who are ready for college work can do it, unhampered by students who aren't ready for college work.

Four of the state's four-year universities have remediation rates above 50 percent, topped by UAPB's 92 percent. UAPB is predominantly black. Davis says that colleges with large numbers of minority students always have higher remediation rates, although he adds that “Every institution has some form of remediation, including Harvard.”

“This is historical,” Davis says of UAPB's high remediation rate. “Go back to slavery, when African Americans weren't even allowed to read and write. Then we came up through a system of segregated public schools that were unequally supported. Then the U.S. Supreme Court said that segregated schools were inherently unequal. But look at the schools now, look at how many are still segregated. Look at Central High. Whatever we're doing now isn't working.”

The two-year colleges couldn't do all the remediation that's needed, Davis says, and “We don't have the money to support all the institutions we have now.” He also dismisses the argument, made by some, that remedial courses can be taught cheaper at community colleges because of the lower overhead and lower faculty salaries. “You get what you pay for,” he says. And he says that remediation is better accomplished at a four-year school. Students who need remedial education also face financial challenges and social challenges, Davis says. Many of UAPB's students are the first from their families to attend college. These challenges can be better met at a four-year institution, he says. “They have to be in a new environment. The dorm experience helps, the peer pressure helps.” Scholarships, in band for example, are available at 4-year schools that are not available at two-year schools.

“It takes total immersion in a new environment to get total remediation,” Davis says.  “A community college is much like the 12 years they just went through. They go to class and they go home. If that's what you want, why not just add two years to high school?”

UALR's high remediation rate can be attributed in part to its having a nontraditional student body. As an urban university, UALR enrolls many students who're older than the traditional college students and who haven't been in a classroom in years.

Behind all this remediation talk is concern over graduation rates, and how to increase them. Alan Richard, communications director of the Southern Regional Education Board at Atlanta, says that remediation rates are directly connected to college retention rates. The higher a college's remediation rate, the more time and money it's spending on students with a lesser chance of getting a degree. And that suggests the student also is not investing his time and money wisely.

Arkansas, in particular, has reason to worry over graduation rates. The SREB keeps statistics on the percentage of entering college students who go on to earn a degree in six years' time. In 2006, the national average was 55 percent. The average for the 16 states in the SREB, a group stretching from Texas to Delaware, was 52 percent. Arkansas's rate was 38 percent. Louisiana, at 36 percent, was the only SREB state below Arkansas.

“The more students who enter college and finish with a degree, the more the state's economy will benefit, and so will the state's people,” Richard said. “Most students who have to take remedial courses in college do not end up graduating.”

That brings the discussion around to some inconveniently tough questions. Should the state give up on the students who're unlikely to earn a degree? Do students, and society, derive any benefit from a person's going to college for just a while? If it's the degree that matters, should colleges give more, not less, help to struggling students, even to the point of lowering the standards for graduation? Does a person benefit from earning a somewhat devalued college degree? Does the state benefit from awarding such degrees?

“We don't need to lower college standards,” Richard says. “We need to help more high school graduates prepare for college work and career training.”

Hutchinson, a former teacher, also says she's not for writing anybody off. “I'm an old-school teacher. If you believe your students can learn, you keep trying.” But, she insists, you don't keep doing remedial work in four-year universities that are supposed to be beyond that, and a line needs to be drawn in the sand. “We've never drawn this line. They were having this same discussion when my ex-husband [Tim Hutchinson] was a state representative 30 years ago.”

The plan she's considering would give the four-year universities 10 years to stop remediation, she says. She also envisions dual enrollment. For example, a student could be enrolled at both Northwest Arkansas Community College in Bentonville, where he'd do remedial work, and the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, where he could take college courses. And be eligible to play football.

A state Task Force on Higher Education Remediation, Retention and Graduation Rates has been at work for some months, but has not made its final recommendations. That it will embrace Hutchinson's plan is unlikely.

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