More than 60 percent of first-year students at Dayton, Ohio's Wright State University aren't ready for college-level reading, writing, or math. Starting in fall 2012, Wright State will send most "developmental education" students to nearby Clark State Community College or Sinclair Community College.
Ohio will stop funding most remedial university classes by 2014. Statewide, that will affect more than a third of first-year students.
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More than a dozen states have restricted funding for remedial education at four-year institutions. Oklahoma and Nevada deny state funding to remediation at four-year institutions, says Bruce Vandal, who directs the Getting Past Go initiative at the Education Commission of the States.
Colorado and South Carolina moved remediation to the community colleges several years ago. Louisiana requires all students who score below a 19 on the ACT to start in the community colleges and complete remediation before transferring to a university. Tennessee passed legislation in 2010 to move all remedial coursework to community colleges.
"There is no data either way to indicate whether this is at all effective at increasing student success or saving money," Vandal says.
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The policy will hit hardest at low-income and minority students and graduates of low-performing high schools, critics charge. Disadvantaged students are the most likely to be assigned to remedial classes.
Pushing "developmental education to community colleges may contribute to a higher education caste system where upper income students go to universities and lower income students go to community colleges," says Hunter R. Boylan, an Appalachian State University higher education professor who directs the National Center for Developmental Education. It could become "the 21st century version of 'separate but equal,'" Boylan warns.
Those who start at community college may never make it to the university.
Only one quarter of community college students who take at least one remedial course earn a certificate or degree, according to Complete College America. By contrast, 38 percent of remedial students at four-year institutions complete a degree.
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There's no reason to think universities are better than community colleges at teaching basic skills, says Boylan. However, universities have more funding than community colleges. Universities can integrate developmental education with counseling, academic advising, tutoring, and other support services that help students succeed.
In addition, universities typically have "a higher proportion of better prepared students than community colleges and it is possible that being surrounded by better students has a positive impact on the performance of weaker students," says Boylan.
While universities are sending unprepared students to community colleges, some community colleges are sending unprepared students to adult education or community-based programs.
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Starting in fall 2012, Pima Community College in Tucson, Ariz., will restrict admission to high school graduates or GED holders with at least seventh-grade proficiency in reading, writing, and math. "Students who test below this level have little chance of succeeding in a college environment, wrote Roy Flores, the college president, in the Arizona Daily Star. Only 5 percent of Pima's remedial students advance to college-level work.
"We have the data. They're not successful, no matter how much we try to help them," said Cindy Allen, Jackson Community College's executive director of community relations.
Joanne Jacobs writes Community College Spotlight for The Hechinger Report, an independent nonprofit education news site. Jacobs also blogs about K-12 education and is the author of Our School: The Inspiring Story of Two Teachers, One Big Idea and the Charter School That Beat the Odds.