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Too many Utah college students aren't ready for rigor

Published January 14, 2012 12:39 pm

The tens of thousands of students who need remedial work are costly for taxpayers, less likely to graduate.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Logan Clifford loved high school, enjoying a vibrant social life and good grades. But the fun carried a deferred price tag known as remedial math.

"I was a student body officer, and I did a lot of different activities. I wasn't thinking about my future. I should have had an eye on the next phase of my life," said the recent Utah State University graduate.

In other words, Clifford should have taken math his senior year, but it isn't required at Cottonwood High School, where he graduated in 2004, or by the state in general.

Clifford's story illustrates a pressing crisis: Too many people who go to college are not academically ready, putting a big drag on the higher education system and the state's economy.

Several explanations have been offered over the years: lack of rigor in the high school curriculum; inadequate funding of public education; too few secondary-school counselors; "senioritis," or the tendency to not take 12th grade seriously; and cultural factors outside schools' control, including family values regarding education and the influence of peers.

Each year, thousands of college students require remedial coursework, which helps explain Utah's disappointing college completion rates. But money woes, family and work obligations, and lack of direction are also barriers to college graduation. The University of Utah's six-year graduation rate is 58 percent, according to a recent audit, far below that of most comparable flagship institutions. The University of Washington and Penn State, by contrast, have graduation rates of 81 and 85 percent, respectively.

Clifford's lost year of math meant he had to take introductory math at USU to earn a bachelor's in public relations. He had to take the course, which charges extra tuition, twice in his final year at USU.

But he is more fortunate than some: After graduating last year, he now works as a PR manager with a Logan ad agency. Published research shows that nationally, students taking remedial courses, also called "developmental" education, are less likely to graduate. Their chances decline the more remediation they require.

"When students enter college, they have two things working against them: time and money," said state Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George. "Those things will knock them off course, meaning they can't afford college, or they get married and get a job. Remedial education is just spinning wheels."

Ominous signs • According to the Utah System of Higher Education (USHE), the state once was a leader in college participation among 19-year-olds, and in the portion of young adults holding degrees. Not anymore. Only about half of Utah high school graduates start college within a year of graduating and the portion of the working-age population with a college degree has slid to 39 percent.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert has formalized a goal to boost that number to 55 percent by 2020, citing studies showing that two-thirds of Utah jobs will soon require a college degree or postsecondary certification.

"If we are going to reach our goal, we are going to have to make half our gains in changing the completion rates. We have to plug the leaks in the pipeline," said David Jordan, chairman of the state Board of Regents.

So far the data do not bode well for achieving this goal. Just more than one-quarter of Utah high school students taking the ACT achieve benchmarks for college readiness in all four categories of math, science, reading and English. But that's slightly better than the national average, and on the rise.

Rich Nelson, CEO of the Utah Technology Council, said neither students nor Utah can afford to keep remediating students in college.

"It's too expensive for the taxpayers, and it's just very harmful, especially in this kind of economic time," Nelson said. "Students need to be better prepared for a postsecondary education if they're going to find meaningful work."

A State Office of Education committee recommended several years ago that all high school seniors be required to take math to help reduce the number of those who need remedial classes in college. But the state school board has put off making a decision on that as it works to implement new, more rigorous academic standards called the Common Core.

The longer path • Although math is the larger remedial burden on Utah colleges, many professors are more concerned about students' poor writing. While composition skills are essential for success in college and beyond, more students are graduating from high school without mastering the basics. But writing assignments are tough on teachers.

"As class sizes have grown, it has become harder for teachers to give and grade the assignments they would like to give," said Jordan, the Regents chairman. "This is also a cultural phenomenon. As people move to the digital world, they get less experience in writing. Who writes a letter anymore?"

Meanwhile, remedial registrations last year exceeded 58,000, according to USHE data (a registration is one student in one class for one semester). Some of these remedial students are older people who have likely forgotten much of what they learned in high school or perhaps never learned it in the first place. But two-thirds of those registrations were students under the age of 24.

"Students who start farther back have a longer path to travel," said K.D. Taylor, Utah Valley University's interim dean of university college, which oversees remedial education. She noted that 37 percent of UVU's Class of 2011 completed some remediation.

Salt Lake Community College and UVU, open-admission schools with the state's largest student bodies, provide the lion's share of remedial and developmental instruction.

Of the 2010 entering class members of UVU who were less than a year past high school graduation, 42 percent needed at least some remediation. That's a marked improvement over 2006, when the portion was 51 percent. But the number needing remedial math has shrunk, while the share needing English has climbed.

Last year, more than one in four incoming UVU students needed English 890 or 990, also known as basic reading and writing. But that didn't alarm Forrest Williams, the English professor who runs the remedial writing program.

"It is something that is historical and nationwide," said Williams, a former high school teacher. "It's not so much grammar; knowing parts of speech doesn't make you a better writer, per se. They lack familiarity with college topics, and they don't read as much as they should. They lack the ability to summarize and analyze a piece of writing. This group is kind of vulnerable. If we can help them on the path to graduation, it's great for the economy and society."

Counselors needed • Other possible reasons abound to explain why more students aren't ready for college.

Some say Utah's academic standards are not rigorous enough — hence the Common Core — while others say money is the issue. Utah has the lowest base per-pupil spending in the nation and some of the largest class sizes. Others cite a lack of school counselors.

Lone Peak junior Alex Shillingford's grades were in the gutter a couple of years ago, before counselor Valerie Ross gave him a reality check, explaining what his future might hold if they didn't improve.

"Without my counselor giving me that sort of [talk], I probably would be working at McDonald's after high school," said Shillingford, who added he has since improved his grades and now hopes to go to college to learn business or entrepreneurship.

During a recent lunch period at Lone Peak, 10 students lined up just to see Ross. She saw three, a few went to other counselors, and some gave up, possibly to return another day. It's a common situation for Ross, who is responsible for more than 400 students.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of 250 to 1. According to the association, Utah had the nation's fourth-highest ratio in 2009-10.

"It's always going to help if there's a better counselor ratio," said Ross, who spent a recent day helping some students complete their class schedules, counseling others about a recent suicide, and dealing with a serious car accident involving a student the previous night.

The state school board has set a goal of no more than 350 students per counselor in grades seven through 12. School districts have made significant progress toward that goal, but about one-fifth still have higher ratios, said Brenda Hales, state associate superintendent. Districts are trying to ensure counselors focus on preventing dropouts and making sure kids complete the right classes, she added.

Logan Clifford, the recently graduated USU student, said he could have benefited from stronger guidance. No one at his high school advised him to continue studying math his senior year. Seven years, including a religious mission, separated his last high school math class and his college math requirement, which proved difficult to pass.

"It ended up costing me an insane amount of money," he said. "Had I known what was going on, I wouldn't have had to take it in the first place. It absolutely slowed down my college progress."

bmaffly@sltrib.com

Two-part series

Today • Many students not college-ready

Coming Sunday •Proposals to fix the problem