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National CrossTalk Summer 1999
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An Interview: Robert McCabe

  Robert McCabe
Robert McCabe is a senior fellow with the League for Innovation in the Community College and is former president of Miami-Dade Community College. He is a foun-ding board member of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. McCabe was interviewed by Patrick M. Callan, president of the Center.

Patrick Callan: Remedial education has been taking a lot of hits recently. You have recently written No One to Waste, a na-tional study of community college reme-dial programs. Why a major study of reme-diation at this time?

Robert McCabe: During my time at Miami-Dade and subsequently, I’ve had many conversations and debates with legislators and others who are concerned about remediation. Usually the arguments were based on anecdotes—theirs versus ours. There really has been no hard data beyond that produced by individual insti-tutions, even though the issues are critical ones.
I believed that we should have better data. We need to debate the issues on the basis of information rather than stories.

PC: Let’s start with the study and what you have learned and reported. First, the students. Who is taking remedial classes in the community colleges?

RM: I started with the classic definition, one that’s pretty much being used all over the country—that is, deficiencies in read-ing, writing and math. Based on criteria that vary greatly from institution to in-stitution, those who do not measure up to those criteria are labeled as remedial. Remedial students range from those with a minor deficiency in only one area to peo-ple who are deeply deficient in all three. There are roughly one million students a year who begin in college and are assigned to remedial courses.

PC: Is that number for all institutions or just community colleges?

RM: In all of them. It’s 29 percent of all of the entering college students. In community colleges it’s about 40 percent, and I do not know of an urban community college where it is not at least half.

PC: How much time do the community college students typically spend on remediation?

RM: The typical college uses a credit equivalent, and the average student takes a little over seven semester credits for remediation, approximately one-fourth of a college year.

PC: What is known about whether, or how well, remediation works? Your report talks about the perception, especially among some state legislators, that we simply are paying for failure one more time?

RM: There is that perception, but more often than not it’s based on faulty premises. First, some of these legislators see con-tinuity between high school and college that doesn’t exist. They think that if stu-dents graduate from high school, they should be ready for standard college work. But the criteria for high school graduation do not match the competency require-ments to begin standard college courses. Students can meet criteria for high school graduation, but still lack the skills needed for college.
Second, our definitions of success may be too narrow. A variety of studies, in-cluding my own, show that between 40 and 50 percent of students who begin in com-munity colleges are successfully remedi-ated. But, the fact is that a high percentage is not going on to bachelor’s degrees, even though remedial programs are really geared for that purpose. Twice as many earn occupational associate degrees or certificates.
If you look at remedial students nine years later, 90 percent are employed in work above an entry-level type of job. Less than two percent are out of work. Reme-diation in the community colleges is much more occupational and vocational than we have thought, and measures of its success should recognize this.
I’m not arguing that all aspects of reme-diation are successful. For the seriously deficient, the program is basically a total failure. Only 20 percent of those students complete remediation, and very few go on to anything after that. Programs for the seriously deficient need to be redesigned altogether.

PC: How do you define “seriously deficient”? Out of the million students mentioned earlier, how many are there?

RM: Seriously deficient students are those who are deficient in reading, writing and math, and are required to take at least one course prior to the standard remedial courses. For example, they simply could not take one remedial math course and be ready—they would have to take a math course prior to that math course. As for numbers, I lack data for all institutions, but in the community colleges I looked at, about one-fourth were seriously deficient.

PC: In addition to the fairly widespread perception that remediation is not very successful, isn’t there also a perception that its costs are bleeding the colleges? RM: Again, the perception is wrong. Only one percent of the higher education budget is spent on remediation, and only four percent of the federal stu-dent financial aid goes there. In terms of expenditures in community colleges, the costs per student are not high—about one-fourth of the public cost per student, about $1,500 or less.
Actually, remediation is the most pro-ductive education program we have. With just one percent of the budget, it salvages the lives of a half-million people, and enables them to become positive, con-tributing individuals in our society. It is a particularly good investment because of the country’s changing demography and economy. The part of our population that is growing the most is also the part that is least prepared for college and skilled jobs. We believe in opportunity and access, and we can’t have either without remedial education.

PC: There are several conclusions in No One to Waste that challenge conventional wisdom, and may surprise some readers. For example, you assert that remediation is essential for quality, not a detriment to it. Is this true?

RM: It is absolutely true. In regular courses, faculty must expect that students are prepared, and only remedial testing and placement can assure that this expectation is met. If it is not met, then quality will suffer because faculty will be forced to lower their expectations to meet the competencies of the unprepared, or too many will fail. This could happen, for ex-ample, in California’s community colleges, where there is wide access and required assessment, but the colleges cannot insti-tute mandatory placement. Great care must be taken not to mix prepared and unprepared students in classes, particularly in urban areas, to avoid lowering the qua-lity of regular instruction and to give students the best opportunity to succeed.

PC: Another point that I think is likely to be controversial is the statement in the report that “helping under-prepared students may be the most important function that community colleges play in American life.”

RM: Students who are well prepared have many options for an education; those who are under-prepared do not. Moreover, it is essential to America, morally, socially and economically, that a high percentage of young Americans have education or training beyond high school—as high as 80 percent, in my opinion. That does not necessarily mean a bachelor’s degree. For a large percentage it would mean a two-year degree or a short occupational certificate, but both our economy and values require this.
America’s community colleges are unique in their concern for under-prepared students, and helping these students find a place in our society is the most important thing that we do.

PC: If serving under-prepared students is that important—essential to quality as well as access—why is remediation not valued in the political world, or in the academic world, for that matter?

RM: It is not highly valued in the po-litical world because it is badly misunderstood. I conducted the study and wrote the report in part to correct misunderstan-dings. I’ve already alluded to the most common political misunderstanding—the idea that every high school graduate is prepared for college or a good job.
the report in part to correct misunderstan-dings. I’ve already alluded to the most common political misunderstanding—the idea that every high school graduate is prepared for college or a good job. culty are educated to be deeply but nar-rowly interested in a particular disci-pline— biology or history or whatever it is—and to teach well-prepared students. Their perspective is from their discipline, their classes, their teaching and the stu-dents they see, not from that of the larger society.
Moreover, teaching less-prepared stu-dents is hard and often frustrating work, for they need more personal attention and support. A belief that their job is helping human beings to develop, and that aca-demic work is, in fact, an instrument to that end, is not typical of college faculty. Most college presidents probably recognize the social and educational value of remedi-ation, but they have been harassed about it so much that they’re too often reluctant to take a strong position.

PC: What about the financial support for remediation?

RM: States under-fund remediation, and I don’t think a successful program is possible without adequate funding. But there are institutional problems as well. One of the most disappointing things to me is that typically community colleges, where most academically deficient students en-roll, do not seem to use the resources that they are given for remedial programs. In fact, they often use mostly part-time in-structors without additional and necessary support. They give remediation low prior-ity and run cheap programs.
Colleges can and should do better with the resources they have, but it will also take more public investment to achieve the level of success that is possible.

PC: If all of the K–12 improvement programs that the country has been work-ing so hard on are successful, can’t we look to the day when remediation will not be around in higher education?

RM: It would be great if that happened, but it’s highly unlikely. I’m impressed that good things are happening, and that the school reform effort is very strong. But the schools have a long way to go simply to retain their current levels of success. Three changes in our society will challenge their efforts: change in the percentage of people who will have to go on to education be-yond high school; change in American demography over the next 30 or 40 years; and change in the nature of work and qualifications for employment. Put these changes together, and we’ll have more people graduating from high school into a society that requires sophisticated skills, but who come from a population pool that—historically, at least—is very poorly prepared for either college or meaningful work. I simply do not see reform wiping out the need for remediation in the fore-seeable future. We have to dig in for the long run.

PC: As a result of your research, what do you recommend? First, what should the community colleges do that they are not doing or could do better?

RM: The colleges need to do several things. They need to recognize the im-portance of remediation, and stand up and make their case forcefully to the public and legislatures to get enough resources. And they need to give remediation priority within their own institutions. I recommend testing programs that accept the fact that a high percentage of young people will go on to some form of education and training beyond high school.
Testing should recognize a continuum; secondary school testing should be closely related to tests used to place people in college. With regard to under-prepared students, experience together with edu-cational research has produced substantial knowledge of effective learning practices. Typically community colleges do not use that knowledge. They must.

PC: Is it still the case that some colleges do not use very sophisticated approaches for assessment and placement of entering students?

RM: Most of it is still very educationally unsophisticated. Community colleges usu-ally have assessment programs that are required by the state. Most programs sim-ply identify someone who is deficient in math or reading or writing, and then assign students to subject classes based on test results. That is a great waste of resources and student time; nothing is done to iden-tify the differences in deficiencies within and across subject fields, or to relate defi-ciencies to the learning program.
We have the capacity to produce diag-nostic assessments and to align each stu-dent’s program to the results. Equally im-portant, a high percentage of students are going on to occupational programs or directly into the workforce. The remedial programs should, therefore, reflect the ex-pectations of business and industry, as well as college academic requirements. Simi-larly, I believe, performance-based bud-geting should recognize successful reme-diation, as well as degrees and certificates earned.

PC: What advice do you have for the governors and legislatures?

RM: I urge mandatory assessment and mandatory placement. I recommend that they expect improved results from the colleges, and that they appropriate the funds needed to achieve that result. As I’ve said, one major measurement of success should be at the point where people have completed remediation.
Again, I recommend development of an integrated or continuum-type assessment program. Such a program would begin wherever measurement begins in the K–12 system, and go on through the beginning of standard college work. Assessments should be diagnostic, and should connect to colleges’ resources and programs.
Governors and legislators also should make every effort to understand the im-portance and many dimensions of reme-diation, particularly that it is not necess-arily just a repeat of high school. They also should recognize that remediation will be around for a long time. Most of all they must see remediation as the only door that will open economic and social opportunity for motivated students who, often through no fault of their own, have been ill pre-pared for life after high school.
A final word, if I may. I was surprised by our data on just how educationally far behind ethnic minorities are. There is a monumental problem here that, in my opinion, needs to be addressed with mega effort and resources, not just by schools, but also by states and by communities.

Photo by Rod Searcey, for CrossTalk

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