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CUNY’s Remediation Needs Remediation

March 25, 2011

By John Garvey

On March 4th, The New York Times published an article about remediation at CUNY that highlighted the large number of students who need remediation and the frustrations of CUNY faculty. The article’s major focus was on the financial and intellectual burdens that students needing remediation, especially those needing a great deal of remediation, placed on the University. A senior University official was quoted as suggesting that CUNY was not able to fulfill its obligations to better prepared students because of the drain of resources to remediation.

According to the Times, about three-quarters (just over 13,000) of the 17,500 freshmen at CUNY community colleges needed remedial instruction in at least one of three areas (reading, writing, math) and one-quarter (about 4400) needed help in all three. Not surprisingly, many readers who commented to the Times web page focused on the number of students needing remediation and the failure of the city’s public schools to graduate students college-ready. My concern is what and how well CUNY does once it identifies entering students who need remediation.

CUNY has been offering remedial/developmental courses (in reading, writing and math) for more than forty years and yet, as a system, CUNY’s efforts have not been very effective. First, the quality of instruction in CUNY’s remedial classes is not nearly as good as it needs to be. Second, as a result, far too few students benefit from their remedial courses. I emphasize the systemic nature of the problem because many individual faculty members and departments have worked hard to develop more effective approaches. But their efforts have not lead to the kinds of fundamental institutional changes that are needed.
CUNY’s predominant approaches have several problems:

  • the placement exams don’t do a consistently good job in assigning students to or exiting them from remedial classes, and they do not provide the diagnostic information necessary to enable teachers and students to identify what students know and understand as well as what they don’t know and misunderstand;
  • there is frequently an unrealistic expectation that students will be able to significantly enhance their skills and knowledge through participation in relatively little instruction—students in most remedial courses only attend class for three to six hours a week;
  • students are usually assigned to separate classes in reading, writing and math although almost all students would benefit from an integrated approach in which improvements in reading would lead to improvements in writing (and vice versa) and improvements in literacy skills would make math learning more effective;
  • the design of most remedial courses assumes that students need to focus on the basic skills of reading comprehension, grammar, arithmetic, and algebra and often doesn’t connect those skills to meaningful content;
  • since students must enroll for full-time study in order to qualify for financial aid, they frequently register for a combination of non-credit and unrelated non-credit courses that does not provide a solid foundation for beginning college;
  • many students who exit CUNY’s remedial courses discover that they’re not ready for the next credit-bearing courses.

The Times article alluded to a new immersion program (formerly the College Transition Initiative, now CUNY START), the article didn’t mention that the core of that effort is a radical redesign of traditional remediation. Nor does the article mention how radically CUNY’s new community college will break with past remedial practices. In both CUNY efforts, the changes being introduced will have valuable lessons not just for remedial courses but for the credit courses that the article suggests are somehow being neglected because of a preoccupation with remediation.

As the Times article acknowledged, most students don’t succeed in their remedial courses, especially students who are in the greatest need. As a result, relatively few of these students earn an associate degree—although some community colleges do much better than others, and better than the CUNY-wide averages. The top-performing community college, Kingsborough in Brooklyn, exceeds the CUNY system’s average of six-year graduation rates by almost ten percentage points, and exceeds the lowest-performing college by almost fifteen points. (For details on graduation rates at individual colleges, go to CUNY’s Office of Institutional Research and Assessment.) Those significant performance differences suggest considerable room for improvement across the CUNY system; they also suggest that such improvement is indeed achievable.

The Times article suggests that CUNY spends too much money ($33 million) on remediation. But a very preliminary and tentative analysis of CUNY’s remedial budget in context reveals the following:

  • According to a May 2010 budget analysis, CUNY’s 2010-2011 community college budget was about $671 million. The cost of remediation therefore seems to be about five percent of the overall community college budget–
  • In fall 2010, the community colleges enrolled just under 91,000 students–
  • If the 2010-11 enrollment is at least that high, the 13,000 freshmen enrolled in remedial courses represent about fifteen percent of the total CUNY community college enrollment. Fifteen percent of CUNY’s total community college budget would reach almost $100 million—quite a bit more than the $33 million CUNY spends annually on remediation.
  • Full-time tuition at CUNY’s community colleges is currently $1650 a semester or $3300 a year (often covered through Pell Grants and TAP). Assuming that the overwhelming majority of the new freshmen attend full-time (several years ago, the rate was 85%), those remedial students would pay a total of $37 million – more than the $33 million that their remedial education costs CUNY (85% x 13,000 x $3300 = $37 million). These calculations suggest that students assigned to and enrolled in CUNY remediation are mostly paying for what they’re getting.

But maybe they’re not getting what they’re paying for. New York State reimburses CUNY for community college students on what is known as an FTE (or full-time equivalent) formula. All those CUNY remedial students are essentially earning money for the University—even though students enrolled in remediation are not earning credits towards their own graduation.

Thus, contrary to the Times article’s suggestion, it is not clear that CUNY spends too much on remediation –it is far more likely that CUNY spends too little. Most important, the money CUNY spends on remediation is not spent effectively. Effective approaches might well require the investment of more funding that would produce far better long-term student outcomes, a result that would justify an increase in funding for remediation. CUNY needs to stop fueling public outrage about the number of remedial students and do a much better job of educating the students the University enrolls.

John Garvey is the former Dean for Collaborative Programs at the City University of New York.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 24, 2011 9:52 am

    While I was adjuncting in the math department at Lehman, it became clear that the remedial math course was just a lite version of the lowest non-remedial course, and that a passing C meant little in terms of success at the next course. Having taught both, I knew that students coming from the remedial course were often blown away in the first weeks of the non-remedial. Knowing a bit of many topics, mastering none, just didn’t do it.

    Another adjunct and I proposed changing the remedial course to a survey of prior skills, foundation skills, up to and through the first hard topic in the non-remedial course, and that we assess for mastery, not for partial (C-level) understanding. This was partially implemented.

    The result was closer. It’s still only an approximation of what needs to be done.



  1. Community College Spotlight | CUNY remediation needs remediation

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