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Behind the Numbers: The Faces of Remediation and Struggle (Part 1)

Co-written with Susan Dickinson Morse | Adjunct Instructor, Washington Engineering Institute

Behind the Numbers: The Faces of Remediation and Struggle (Part 1)
Low-skilled adult students looking to return to higher education to advance their careers and improve their lives often face a number of roadblocks and barriers that may be invisible to most.

“One person can make a difference and every person should try.” ~ John F. Kennedy.

For years, the higher education community has been discussing the ever-increasing need for remediation, the lack of college readiness and the poor completion rates of students. If anyone had doubts about just how bad things are, has published a detailed and depressing report. Add to this data the fact that most of us realize that, someday, all of modern education will be dragged — kicking and screaming, perhaps — through a major overhaul, and you have a mountain of problems. Underneath that mountain, being crushed, are the individuals struggling within the system, most of whom cannot wait for “someday.” It is for these people, the faces behind the statistics, that we must all begin to try to make a difference.

Meet Sophia (a composite student) as she heads off to Hometown Community College. After working part-time for a few years in a grocery store bakery, she has decided to enroll in the Culinary Arts program. She’s a single mother and uses public assistance to make ends meet. She’s got a financial aid package that will pay for her program. Enter the placement testing process. English is not Sophia’s first language and she has to take a developmental (remedial) course so she can gain entry into her career program. Financial aid won’t pay for this.

Today she is sitting angry, scared and several hundred dollars poorer in a class that is supposed to get her up to college level in reading and writing. She also tested into remedial math. This semester of remedial course work will set her back months in her career plan. Instead of focusing on the instructor as he reviews the syllabus, Sophia is wondering if her cousin will continue to baby-sit for free now that school is going to take even longer. At the end of the first class, she dutifully heads over to the tutoring center. She wants to, no, needs to, pass this class. A few minutes later, she is reluctantly admitting that she really wasn’t listening to the instructor and doesn’t know how to begin her first assignment. She’s starting off in a very deep hole.

Down the hall, Martin (also a composite) is not feeling any better about his first day of classes. Martin is a faculty adjunct teaching English. He doesn’t teach Sophia’s class; he teaches the English 101 course. It’s supposed to be a standard freshman level class. It’s not. Nothing in graduate school came close to preparing him for the wide range of abilities and problems in a community college classroom. Most students hadn’t read a real book in years, if ever. Students who had just passed the developmental class on campus had minimal writing skills; students with high school diplomas weren’t much better. Many had noticeable social problems. All of them expected A’s.

He’s quickly shoving his materials into a backpack because he’s got an hour’s drive ahead of him to get to his next class at another community college, one town over. He has no office so he takes everything with him each day. However, he’s not complaining, at least not about the drive. This semester, he’s got classes at two schools, which means he might just be able to pay the bills on time.

Finally, meet Mike and Steve (both composites) as they settle in together at the library to study math. Despite their age difference, they quickly bonded over their distaste for math and their compatible schedules for working on homework. Mike is in his early 50s and recovering from a job-related injury. He’s been placed in a program that will pay for his retraining for less physical work, provided he makes good grades and does not take another job during his time in school. Mike hasn’t been in a classroom for over 20 years. Steve, on the other hand, is a recent high school graduate. He had a solid B average in high school, so he’s been really surprised at how hard college-level work is, and how much time it takes to get it done. Steve’s parents co-signed for his student loans and, though he would never admit it, he’s thinking he might not be “college material.”

Today, Mike and Steve are reviewing their last test and discussing strategy. Both men failed the last chapter test and now they know they need to do something differently. Mike wants to go to the campus tutoring center their math instructor mentioned. Steve is against this. Steve tells Mike that he was a B student in regular classes just last year, having successfully avoided “dummy classes,” and he doesn’t want to start his college years being labeled stupid. Together they agree to meet an additional day per week to study for the next test; if they don’t pass that one, they will go to a tutor. However, neither realizes that if he fails the next chapter exam, he’s in danger of failing the entire course. When they part, new study plans in place, they grouse about the fact that “no one needs word problems in the real world anyway.”

Stories like these show us that — as disturbing as the statistics on remediation, lack of college readiness and poor graduation rates are — they do not tell the entire story. In some ways, an overview of data is not as heartbreaking as the individual stories of students. While we wait for the inevitable-but-sluggish reworking of the education system, we must take steps — individual, personalized steps — to reach out to the students who are falling through the cracks in the system, one at a time.

Come back to The EvoLLLution next week for the conclusion of this series, where Watts and Morse will share several strategies that could be successful in helping to avoid some of the issues mentioned above.

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