Wracked with frustration over the state's legions of unprepared high school graduates, the California State University system next summer will force freshmen with remedial needs to brush up on math or English before arriving on campus.

But many professors at the 23-campus university, which has spent the past 13 years dismissing students who fail remedial classes, doubt the Early Start program will do much to help students unable to handle college math or English.

"I'm not at all optimistic that it's going to help," said Sally Murphy, a communications professor who directs general education at Cal State East Bay, where 73 percent of this year's freshmen were not ready for college math. Nearly 60 percent were not prepared for college English.

"A 15-hour intervention is just not enough intervention when it comes to skills that should have been developed over 12 years," Murphy said.

The remedial numbers are staggering, given that the Cal State system admits only freshmen who graduated in the top one-third of their high-school class. About 27,300 freshmen in the 2010 entering class of about 42,700 needed remedial work in math, English or both.

By requiring the Early Start courses, the university is trying, in part, to cut down the number of students kicked out for failing to complete remedial classes their first year. College-level math and English are required for many other Cal State courses, so students who are ineligible for entry-level classes in one or both subjects have a significant disadvantage.


Advertisement

The courses may be taken online, at a Cal State campus or at some community colleges.

Few instructors believe the 15-hour Early Start courses will ease the burden for remedial students or the university, said Jim Postma, a Cal State Chico chemistry professor and chairman of the systemwide Academic Senate.

If half the students eligible for the Cal State system are unable to handle college work, he said, California is in bad shape.

"It's a terrible indictment of the K-through-12 system," Postma said. "If a factory was building cars and the lug nuts kept falling off the tires, you would do something pretty dramatic about it. We keep adding the lug nuts back to the tires rather than trying to figure out what the problem is."

The remedial problem is hardly confined to California. Schools across the country have puzzled over how to better prepare students for college and what to do with those who are not ready.

But budget cuts have staggered the Cal State system's ability to teach childhood math and English skills to tens of thousands of students every year. One solution would be to do a better job figuring out exactly what kind of help students need to focus remedial education, said Linda Wong, executive director of the University of Southern California's Center for Urban Education.

"There have been a lot of problems with the assessment tools that colleges use," she said. Because of that shortfall, "it's very difficult to customize the curriculum to address specific needs of the students."

The Cal State system's remedial pressures have, for the past few years, led many students to take basic classes at community colleges. That influx has, in turn, made it more difficult for full-time community college students to get into classes they need to prepare for four-year schools.

Budget cuts also have hurt the community colleges: Thousands of classes have been cut the past few years on the state's 112 two-year campuses.

"We're all trying to figure out how to handle these students who are woefully unprepared," said Mark Wade Lieu, an Ohlone College instructor who directs remedial education for the state's community colleges. "The greatest fear is we're going to lose a generation of students."

Matt Krupnick covers higher education. Contact him at 510-208-6488. Follow him at Twitter.com/MattKrupnick.

Remedial needs
at California State University
  • New freshmen in the 23-campus system, fall 2010: 42,738
  • New freshmen who needed remedial help, fall 2010: 27,298
  • Percentage of fall 2011 freshmen taking remedial math, Cal State East Bay:
    73 percent
  • Percentage of fall 2011 freshmen taking remedial English, Cal State East Bay: 58 percent
  • Percentage of fall 2011 freshmen taking both subjects, Cal State East Bay:
    46 percent
    Sources: California State University; Sally Murphy, Cal State East Bay