Minnesota hopes to improve college readiness among high school students

/ 7 July 2012 / jennifer

Christopher Magan, Pioneer Press, July 7, 2012 –

After decades of spending millions a year to teach thousands of college students skills they should have learned in high school, Minnesota’s institutions of public education are moving toward an overhaul to improve college readiness.

In 2010, Minnesota State Colleges and Universities spent $30 million teaching remedial English, mathematics and other courses to ensure students have the skills to succeed in entry-level college courses. Half of that money is spent on recent high school graduates who are unprepared for college work and the rest on adults re-entering school and needing to brush up on skills.

Of the students who attend college, about 40 percent require at least one of these developmental courses — an increase from 33 percent just a decade ago. The students come from the state’s top high schools and those most struggling.

Minnesota’s numbers mirror statistics nationwide with remedial classes now costing students and taxpayers an estimated $2 billion annually. Students often spend thousands on these classes and yet receive no college credit.

College costs continue to skyrocket, with student loan debt now surpassing $1 billion, and the demand for workers with at least some higher education continues to grow. This confluence has led to a nationwide push to improve education attainment and close the “college readiness gap.”

Karen Hynick, MnSCU director of college transition, said both education costs and economic factors make this a key moment for revamping how Minnesota prepares students for college and the workforce.

“We certainly need to do a better job with the pipeline coming out of K-12 and the retraining of adults,” Hynick said. “I think we do have a good opportunity. You have folks at the table, working between systems to create this plan that is sustainable for the long term.”

In June, MnSCU Chancellor Steven Rosenstone, Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius and Larry Pogemiller, director of the state office of higher education, presented a framework titled: “A Vision for Redesigning Grades 11, 12, 13 and 14 in Minnesota.”

Their plan includes better assessment of students skills, earlier intervention to improve college preparedness, replacement of some remedial courses with intense tutoring and more opportunities for prepared students to earn college credit in high school.

The hope is to avoid lumping students into remedial courses because they have minor academic deficiencies, Hynick said. Recognizing students may need different skills for different careers may also help reduce the need for some of the most demanded remedial courses, such as mathematics.

Stakeholders at the state’s educational institutions hope to present recommendations for policy changes to lawmakers during the next legislative session.

“Right now, we are still listening to people,” Hynick said.

Meanwhile, Gov. Mark Dayton has signed on with a coalition of 30 states promising to work to improve college completion, headed by the national nonprofit Complete College America, which is working to improve education attainment in the U.S.

“In the last six months we have seen some real stepping up by education leaders in Minnesota to get fully engaged with this,” said Tom Sugar, senior vice president of Complete College America. “We are very pleased with their recent progress.”

By joining this “alliance,” states “have to agree to a statewide college completion plan” and “to moving some significant policy levers to address key obstacles to completion,” Sugar said.

Remedial education is often a student’s biggest hurdle to completing a degree or certificate. Nationally, the statistics are shocking.

Of the 22 percent of students needing remediation at four-year colleges and universities, less than half finish the freshman English or math courses the developmental class is preparing them for, national data show. Only 35 percent of those students will earn a diploma within six years.

At community colleges, the statistics are even worse. Of the 62 percent of community college students who need remedial courses, just 22 percent finish the “gateway” freshman English or math classes. Fewer than 10 percent will earn a degree after three years.

It is unclear how closely Minnesota tracks student success in developmental courses. Graduation rates for students who don’t need remedial help are nearly double those of students who do, the national data show. About 60 percent of university students earn a degree within six years of entering schools.

Minnesota’s six-year college graduation rate was 61 percent in 2010, roughly the national average. The University of Minnesota’s rate was higher, at 65 percent, and state colleges on average had less than half their students completing degrees in six years, state data shows. At community colleges just 29 percent graduated after three years, but when transfers are factored in, 53 percent received a diploma or moved to another school.

In a state known for academic achievement, Minnesotans typically score among the best in the nation on the ACT exam for college admission. Yet, the company that administers the test has some equally surprising facts about the preparedness of the state’s high school students.

Nearly 80 percent of high school graduates take the ACT, earning an average composite score of 22.9. Still, ACT considers only 35 percent of those test-takers as meeting all four benchmarks in reading, writing, math and science that will translate into college success.

Still, Minnesota students easily outperform the national averages. Nationwide, just 25 percent are considered college ready in all four subject areas, ACT found.

Joe Nathan, executive director of the Center for School Change, which advocates for charter schools and improving public education, said the national and state statistics should worry educators. Last month, the center convened a group of college and high school teachers and administrators as part of an ongoing effort to discuss ways to improve college readiness.

“There is a huge disconnect between the requirements for graduating high school and the requirements for being ready for college in key academic areas,” Nathan said.

Despite recent action, Minnesota hasn’t always been on the forefront of addressing the college completion crisis. In fact, when Complete College America began compiling data from states about developmental courses and college completion, Minnesota was one of the few that didn’t respond.

Officials from MnSCU and the state office of higher education cited staffing shortages and the 2010 state government shutdown as factors that made providing the data difficult. The state office of higher education relies on MnSCU to produce a report every two years about how many students enrolled in state schools need remedial education.

There have been numerous efforts over the years to try to reduce these rates and improve the preparedness of students entering public colleges and universities. Schools work with high schools, employers and adults to help provide the skills for college and career readiness.

Nonetheless, teachers at both the college and high school level describe many of those efforts as scattered and underfunded. They see close, ongoing collaboration between faculty members as a key to bridging the gap.

Nathan’s Center for School Change sponsored a collaborative session last month. The idea, he said, was to get both sides to better understand the challenges they face without “pointing fingers.”

Jessica Emery, an English-as-a-second-language teacher at Sibley High School in Mendota Heights, described how collaboration with Inver Hills Community College has been key to helping students understand the importance of preparing themselves in high school for higher education.

“Especially as college gets more expensive,” Emery said. “Students need to be able to maximize their time here.”

More often, representatives from colleges across the metro are working closely with high school officials to improve college readiness. From Inver Hills in the south to Century College in the north and Hennepin Technical College to the west, college leaders are discussing curriculum, assessing prospective students to gauge readiness and meeting to talk about expectations.

The last point may be even more difficult to address than curriculum and readiness shortfalls. Many college officials say they are increasingly confronted with apathetic students demoralized by an era of constant testing but little analytical thinking.

“For me it is a culture change, not just here, but across the country,” said Andrew Nesset, acting academic dean at Century and member of the English faculty. “High schools do a wonderful job of college preparation if students pursue it. Students have the power to do college-level work. Often, they just see it as hoops to jump through.”

Paul Carney is a faculty member of the Center for College Readiness who works with high school students to prepare them for college-level writing. Carney sees a need for “systemic change” at all levels if Minnesota is to do anything more than make incremental progress on college preparedness and completion rates.

“It has to happen that way if we are going to see completion rates rise,” Carney said. “Colleges have to support readiness at the high school level and before. Anytime we can get these parties all at the table to have more than conversations, it is encouraging. We need to extend the ladder down as far as we can. College readiness really needs to be prenatal.”

Christopher Magan can be reached at 651-228-5557. Follow him attwitter.com/cmaganPiPress. Read our blog: Ahead of the Class atblogs.twincities.com/education/.


Visit the article source for a searchable database showing the percentage of students needing developmental courses by high school.