By Tom Elias
The 23-campus California State University system knows it must somehow speed up graduation beyond today’s pace, which sees just 19 percent of entering freshmen graduate within four years. The low rate is at least partly because more than a third of frosh need some remedial work.
Increased college graduation is especially crucial in three major regions: the Los Angeles area, the Central Valley and the Inland Empire of Riverside and San Bernardino counties, where need for educated workers is growing steadily as industries become more technically complex.
A study from the non-profit Public Policy Institute of California the other day found the state will need 1.1 million more college educated workers by 2030 (beyond its current pace of producing graduates) to keep up with economic demand.
That’s one big reason the Cal State system this summer floated the idea of turning its current crop of remedial math and English classes into for-credit classes rather than leaving them as non-credit courses that don’t contribute to anyone’s graduation.
The problem with giving academic credit for remedial classes that essentially provide students with knowledge or skills they should have picked up in high school is that it threatens to dumb down degrees from Cal State campuses from the North Coast to San Diego.
Top officials in the Cal State system’s Long Beach headquarters know this and want to nip in the bud any suspicion about inferior diplomas.
“We will only do this if we can do it without dumbing down the degree,” said Mike Uhlenkamp, senior spokesman for Cal State. “The most important thing we do is make sure students get a high quality education so employers know just what they’re getting when they take our people on.”
That’s where things get dicey. How can Cal State combine standard freshman coursework with remedial lessons in the same kind of classwork, the stated goal of the putative new for-credit policy?
“We have to do it,” Uhlenkamp said. “Classes won’t be the same as today’s when we’re trying to do catch-up and coursework all in the same breath.”
Cal State would like to get this going, at least on a pilot basis, by next fall, which means students starting classes right about now won’t notice much change. But it’s a conundrum the nation’s largest university system hasn’t quite figured out.
“We’re consulting faculty, campus administrations, the community colleges and everyone else we can think of with an interest in this,” Uhlenkamp added. “We’re still evaluating the best way to do it.”
Still, it may not be possible to turn a cow into a racehorse just by calling it something different or painting it a different color.
And yet, there’s little doubt the present system has made many students feel one-down. Some feel discriminated against because the non-credit remedial classes they’ve been required to take doom them to spending a year or more longer getting to graduation than many of their onetime high school classmates.
So the Cal State bosses will consider criteria other than routine placement tests to determine who must get remedial work. “In the past, we’ve relied on that,” said Uhlenkamp. “But some people are just poor test takers even if they know a subject.” The remedy will be a more holistic approach, using high school grades and scores on the SAT and ACT tests (taken by most college-bound high schoolers) in addition to placement tests as factors indicating whether students are ready for college when they arrive.
And it’s not just Cal State that faces the remediation problem. So do the state’s community colleges, where many students who ordinarily would require catch-up classes now are being mainstreamed, some doing well.
The bottom line: For the community colleges, Cal State and most of California, it’s a must to graduate students faster, but the trick will be to do this in a way that doesn’t decrease the quality and value of diplomas they get in the final act of their undergraduate years.