Higher Education “Tracking”

One of the more difficult subjects in higher education policy is what to do with students who have graduated from high school but require remedial help before successfully completing college-level academic work. There’s been an understandable tendency among public universities to resist the mission of remediation, even if students otherwise meet admission standards. But as the Hechinger Report‘s Sarah Carr shows in a web-exclusive post at College Guide, one state, Louisiana, is in danger of creating a two-track system where low-income high school graduates are shunted into two year colleges even if their remediation needs are small.

[S]tate policymakers increasingly hold a belief that “four-year universities should exclusively be places for students who are prepared to go straight into college-level work,” said Iris Palmer, a senior policy analyst at the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan public policy organization based in Washington D.C.

And not only in Louisiana. More and more, the least privileged students across the country are being funneled into the least prestigious, lowest-funded institutions, many of them two-year colleges.

This shift is being fueled by arguments that it’s more cost-efficient to have community colleges, rather than universities, specialize in remedial education. Critics counter with concerns about equity — namely, that the policy makes it harder for low-income students to pursue four-year degrees.

The debate speaks to an underlying tension over the future of American higher education: whether the system should funnel students of disparate skills and backgrounds along separate tracks, or let them choose their own paths.

Louisiana is one of several states that have moved to push remediation to the community colleges; others include Ohio, Colorado, South Carolina, and Tennessee.

But methods for determining the need for remediation have created closed doors for huge segments of the student population:

In Louisiana, a student’s need for extra academic support, usually in the form of remedial courses, is judged largely by how well he or she performs on the ACT college entrance test. Those who score below an 18 in English or a 19 in math are routed into remedial courses. The national averages are 20.1 and 20.9, respectively; in Louisiana, they’re 19.4 and 19.2.

This effectively creates a two-tiered higher education system, since higher-income students score higher on the ACT than lower-income ones, according to research.

Last year, the average composite ACT score for New Orleans public school students was 18.4, meaning hundreds of them are eligible only for admission to a community college and not a four-year university.

As it happens, Louisiana is not implementing the new remediation policy overnight, so a less rigid approach may eventually prevail. But right now the theory that community colleges can “specialize” in remediation is colliding with the reality of a system where the neediest students are denied access to the most resource-rich colleges.

You should read the whole piece.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.