KENT, Ohio — As finals approached, nearly 240 students in a computer lab worked through basic algebra problems at Kent State University, where they and more than 3,200 of their classmates had been deemed unprepared for college-level math. They struggled to solve for x in equations such as 3x plus 1 equals 7, a skill students are meant to master in middle school. (The correct answer: x equals 2.)
Just down the hallway, university officials were trying to crunch a few numbers of their own, analyzing how much it'd cost to keep providing such remedial education to students who don't arrive ready for college-level work.
The annual price tag for remedial education in American colleges and universities is at least $3.6 billion, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education, a national advocacy organization in Washington. It's also a reason that many college students quit in frustration, contributing to high dropout rates.
In a largely overlooked but precedent-setting move, cash-strapped Ohio has said it'll soon stop footing the bill for remedial courses. The state's 2007 budget quietly mandated that the government phase out money for remediation at four-year universities beginning in the 2014-15 academic year, and eliminate such funding altogether by 2020.
The gap between the skills with which students graduate from high school and what colleges expect them to be able to do has come under increased scrutiny, as federal policymakers push states to increase college graduation rates. At least 13 other states, including Florida, Missouri and South Carolina, have tried to slow the spiral of spending on remedial education, typically by restricting funding to colleges and universities that provide a lot of it.
Changing the systems, however, won't be easy
"Simply waving a wand and saying, 'There shall be no remediation' probably won't take care of the problem," said Bob Wise, the president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and a former governor of West Virginia. "There is, unfortunately, a need for remediation."
Higher-education reformers nationwide say that need can be reduced.
"The degree it's happening right now is far too great and far too expensive," said Kim Norris, Ohio Board of Regents spokeswoman. Ohio, with the country's fifth-largest university system, spends about $130 million annually on remediation, Norris said.
Nationwide, some 44 percent of students at community colleges and 27 percent at four-year institutions had to take at least one remedial course in 2008, the last year for which data are available from the U.S. Department of Education. Even if students pass such remedial classes, research shows they're less likely to graduate than their peers who start directly in college-level classes.
At Kent State – where just more than half of first-year students in 2006 had to take remedial courses in math, English or both – remediation costs more than $750,000 a year, an amount that Provost Robert Frank calls "non-trivial."
"We are receiving students who successfully graduated from high school who aren't ready for (college) math, writing and chemistry," Frank said.
Following up on the 2007 mandate, Ohio legislators directed the Board of Regents and the state Department of Education this year to develop a report suggesting ways to reduce the need for remedial courses.
Jim Petro, the chancellor of the University System of Ohio, wants to solve the problem by going back to its root. He's called for better assessments to be given in 10th grade, which would leave time for unprepared students to get extra help before they finish high school. That's likely to become a popular idea nationwide, said Matthew Smith of the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based group that helps states develop education policies.
The University of Toledo has a different plan: changing its recruitment tactics. This year, about 21 percent of incoming freshmen at the open-admission school enrolled in at least one remedial course, said Lawrence Burns, the vice president for external affairs.
Mindful of the 2020 deadline, university officials at Toledo are working to improve outreach to private schools, whose graduates are thought to be better prepared. It's promising prospective students guaranteed scholarship money as early as the eighth grade, in hopes of encouraging them to acquire the skills they'll need to avoid remedial classes.
"The bottom line is we need to make sure we're recruiting more prepared students," Burns said.
But some experts worry that this shift will discriminate against students from low-performing high schools in poor areas, pushing more students away from universities into already-overburdened community colleges.
"It would just add to the already difficult challenges that exist because of space needs and capacity," said Ronald Abrams, the president of the Ohio Association of Community Colleges.
A handful of states already restrict spending on remedial courses by four-year universities. In some instances, universities in these states have tried to strike what Smith called "kind of a happy medium" by teaming up with community colleges to offer remedial courses on university campuses. This strategy works as a loophole of sorts, allowing universities to cope with the elimination of remedial funding, while not shutting students out of the remedial classes they need.
Wright State University in Dayton – where about half of students land in one or more remedial courses – is experimenting with such a partnership now, working with nearby community colleges to standardize a remedial-education curriculum, according to Thomas Sudkamp, associate provost for undergraduate studies and the University College at Wright State.
"If we're required to phase out (remedial) education altogether, having those relationships ongoing with community colleges would provide a way for serving our students," he said.