December 4, 2009

College Students Who Can't Do Math Or Read Well

By Sandra Stotsky and Ze'ev Wurman

Every year seems to produce a burst of attention to a particular crisis in education. In 2009, the most publicized crisis is likely the staggering number of post-secondary students with severe debilities in reading and math. Estimates of those needing remedial classes before taking credit courses range from 30% of entering students to 40% of traditional undergraduates. According to a 2008 report by the CUNY Council of Math Chairs, 90% of 200 City University of New York students tested couldn't solve a simple algebra problem in their first class at a four-year college.

A 2004 U.S. Department of Education study reports that 42% of freshmen in public two-year institutions need remediation. While there are many adult (non-traditional) students in remedial classes, those 21 or younger make up approximately 80% of remedial class enrollment, according to a 2009 policy brief from the Charles Houston Center for the Study of the Black Experience in Education.

More than half of all college students will not earn a degree or credential, according to a 2009 Gates Foundation report drawing on national education statistics. For community college and low-income students, it notes, the numbers are much worse. Only about one-quarter of the African-American students who enrolled in a community college in 2004 graduated within three years. Immediate enrollment in credit courses that accumulate rapidly towards completion of a degree program is not possible for under-qualified young adults who need to spend at least part-time on remedial courses.

We have, however, a surprising divergence of opinion on how to confront this problem. The Houston Center, for example, seems to want more effective remedial math courses and, in fact, more access to remedial math in post-secondary institutions. Others want to allow high school students with minimal math and reading skills to bypass remedial courses and enroll directly into entry-level math and reading courses for credit at the post-secondary level.

This would be done by altering institutional requirements and existing courses. The Gates Foundation, for example, wants to do this and faults our post-secondary institutions for not having "responded to their students' increasingly complex and diverse needs." One goal of Gates' Postsecondary Success Initiative is to make both curriculum and instruction at the post-secondary level "more effective and engaging" by integrating technology into instruction, redesigning entire courses, and "contextualizing" these courses "to match students' field of interest." Details are lacking, but this seems to mean that academic degree programs would be versions of programs now offered in vocational technical high schools, the kind of schools these students should have had the opportunity---and encouragement---to enroll in.

Whether this Initiative will be more successful than its "small high school initiative" remains to be seen. But it raises a question. Which is better for higher education institutions and the United States? Placing mathematically unqualified freshmen in credit courses in colleges and universities, or strengthening high school coursework to prepare more mathematically qualified freshmen for them? In a more rational world, the question wouldn't even be asked. Our mediocre high school performance on international tests like TIMSS, and the fact that a large fraction of our college graduates comes from overseas, clearly indicate that the problem is not with our post-secondary institutions. Yet, post-secondary faculty seem strangely silent on the attempt, visible in the Gates Foundation initiative, to shape their institutions' admission requirements.

What seems to drive the effort to reduce post-secondary admission requirements and expectations in part is the fear that raising high school expectations would increase the dropout rate. Yet, is it really the case that low-performing high school students would drop out if high school diploma requirements were ratcheted up? That doesn't seem to be the case in Massachusetts, which in 2008 reduced its dropout rate by 12% from the previous year. The Bay State is one of the best examples of a state that has meaningfully increased the academic demands on its high school students while simultaneously reducing dropouts.

Moreover, there are ways to motivate high school students to pay more attention to their academic schoolwork. A 2009 study of a program providing California high school juniors with information about their academic readiness for college-level work at California State University campuses found that participation in that Early Assessment Program reduced the average student's probability of needing remediation at California State University Sacramento Campus by 6.1 percentage points in English and 4.1 percentage points in mathematics. It finds that "Rather than discouraging poorly prepared students from applying to Sacramento State, EAP appears to lead students to increase their academic preparation while still in high school."

On the other hand, it is not clear that most teachers believe that most students are capable of doing authentic college-level work. A survey by Civic Enterprises in June 2009 found that less than one-third of teachers believe that "schools should expect all students to meet high academic standards and to graduate with the skills to do college-level work, and provide extra support to struggling students to help them meet those standards."

What would help us to address this troubling situation is more honesty in the feedback that students get in their high school years on the quality of their academic work. The 2008 data on freshman remediation in California higher education institutions that draw on the top 30% show that over 28,000 students---57% of freshmen---needed remediation in math and/or English, despite the fact that their average Grade Point Average from high school was over 3.1.

New high school standards are in the works by a coalition of states and national organizations, and they are strongly pushed by the federal Department of Education and stimulus bill funds. This initiative has enormous potential to make many more American high school students competitive with those from other countries. But there's a big "if"--if it clearly specifies what students should know in mathematics and in English that makes them truly ready for college admission .


Sandra Stotsky is Professor of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas and holds the 21st Century Chair in Teacher Quality. Ze'ev Wurman is a Silicon Valley engineer who served as Senior Policy Adviser in the USED between 2007 and 2009

Comments (3)


The US has made an incredibly bad choice in education policy. It was "decided" that everyone should graduate high school, so high school was dumbed down until the degree was worthless (and not having it was a HUGe career problem). It was decided that most people should go to college, so college is in the process of getting dumbed down, too.

The end result is that most people waste time, money, and effort getting a degree they don't really need and the people who can least afford that time, money, and effort get left behind.

School should be harder. A high school degree should mean something. An undergraduate degree should mean a lot. Help people go to school (at any age), but not by dumbing the school down for them. This is better socially and economically.


I'll agree with Joseph's conclusion that high school and undergraduate standards have been dumbed down to the point that the HS diploma and bachelor's degree are no longer worth what they were 20+ years ago. This is clear to me from reviewing the work of my children and that of recent college graduates. Despite very good GPAs they lack a sound understanding of the basic principles underlying science, math, economics and civics.

I am somewhat conflicted about what is more troubling: that a noticeable percentage of university students require remedial courses, or that universities offer remedial courses. The first problem is due to inadequate admission standards or screening of applicants. The second problem is most likely due to the realization by colleges that remedial courses are good for the bottom line. Remedial courses can be taught by low-paid staff, are unlikely to have expensive support costs (labs, facilities, ...), and can probably be taught to a rather stable syllabus. When students are charged full prices for remedial courses the institution should make more money.

This article rings true with me. I am an older (non-traditional) student and I am shocked at the lack of basic skills in the young students I go to college with. There are of course exceptions, but by and large these are kids who know very little and believe that they know a great deal. Basic civics and introductory philosophy are not only simply not there, but many of them don't care to know it and act as if something is wrong with you if you do. The behavior is almsot an embrace of ignorance and a thinking pattern that indicates almost raw emotionalism nearly incapable of genuine critical thought.

I aqm not saying that these students are "stupid". I am saying that many lack skills and have not been tought anywhere near their potential for their grade level.

I have also noticed a great deal of "two dimensional" thinking in too many professors.

Thanks for Minding the Campus. I enjoy the content.

I am concerned. Perhaps I shall write about my college experiences in a book. If most parents had any idea.....

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