The Ill-Prepared and the Ill-Informed

By Wright, Scott W. | Black Issues in Higher Education, March 5, 1998 | Go to article overview

The Ill-Prepared and the Ill-Informed


Wright, Scott W., Black Issues in Higher Education


NEW YORK -- City Council members presented three community college students here with a special proclamation this month, congratulating them on winning a national chess championship.

It was the first time in weeks anyone had uttered a kind word about the City University of New York's (CUNY) community college students. And that was partly because it had all been prearranged before Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani began taking potshots at the six two-year institutions -- blasting them for rock-bottom graduation rates and proposing the privatization of remediation.

But the hot-button issue resurfaced amid the staged niceties when a college official asked the Borough of Manhattan Community College students how many had ever taken a remedial class.

All raised their hands.

It was a poignant moment in what has become a pitched debate here in the nation's largest city over what to do about ill-prepared students and ill-informed politicians.

But why should community college administrators and instructors elsewhere care how the story plays out in this megalopolis that seems so far removed from them?

* Because over the past five years, a growing number of state legislators and universities have shoved responsibility for remediating students off onto two-year institutions.

* Because developmental courses are the education world's "dirty little secret." Even many community college leaders privately complain about such classes.

* Because Giuliani's rampage on remediation -- no matter how distorted some contend it may be -- has played well with the public, which has been largely sympathetic with his position.

* Because New York City's Republican mayor, some believe, has presidential aspirations, and his views on remedial education now could become a harbinger of things to come.

* Because experts believe the hysterial here over the expense developmental courses easily could spread across the country faster than you could say "quadratic equation."

"There is wide-spread disaffection nationwide with the numbers -- both of recent high school graduates and of returning students -- who show up under-prepared for the reality of freshman work," says Dr. John E. Roueche, a nationally recognized expert on the subject.

"I'm finding widespread unhappiness with community colleges having to spend more and more money on remediation for more and more students," says Roueche, who heads the community college leadership program at the University of Texas-Austin. "When people like the mayor of New York look at the amount of money being spent and see what they perceive to be miserable results, then you begin to get a sense of the anger and hostility."

A Plank in a Platform?

Giuliani proposes halting all remedial coursework at the six colleges, where approximately four out of five students require at least one development course in reading, writing, or math. Additionally, approximately 21 percent of all instruction at the city's six community colleges takes place in remedial courses. And on top of that, 87 percent of incoming freshmen fail at least one of three basic skills exams.

But under Giuliani's plan, students who require remediation in the basics would be barred from the six colleges, which enroll nearly 70,000 students, until they could pass placement exams. By Giuliani's estimates, that could cut enrollment by 75 percent. Those students would be required to take developmental courses from private companies.

The CUNY community colleges were chartered as open admission institutions. Barring underprepared students might be difficult or impossible, some educators say.

"We remain unalterably opposed to that type of restrictive policy," says Dr. David Pierce, president of the American Association of Community Colleges in Washington, D.C.

"In most states, policies have been moving in the direction of having community colleges take over more of the responsibility for remediation," he says. …

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