Followers of such statistics say these figures are conservative but highlight the need to revamp policies that focus on remedial coursework. Typically these classes are costly to the university and student, leading many to drop out because of cost or frustration. Remedial classes don't count toward a degree.
About 20 states already prohibit four-year colleges from offering remedial coursework, said Brenda Bautsch, senior policy specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Students in states like Louisiana and Tennessee will no longer qualify to attend state public universities if they need even one remedial class. Nonetheless, Bautsch said, they've fostered a seamless transition to state universities after students complete remedial courses at the junior college level.
As means to advancement, some schools have refined their remedial program so that a year's worth of learning can be achieved in a single semester. Other ideas have proven successful as well, as schools have coupled those efforts with additional support services, such as mandatory tutoring, Bautsch said.
National data shows that more than a third — 37 percent — of first- and second-year collegians took remedial English and math courses in 2008. A 2011 College Board study noted that 47.3 percent of blacks, 45.1 percent of Hispanics, and 43.9 percent of Native Americans took brush-up coursework.
Last year, states and students spent at least $3 billion on remedial courses, according to recent report (pdf) by Complete College America.
"This broken remedial bridge is travelled by some 1.7 million beginning students each year, most of whom will not reach their destination — graduation," the April report's authors stated.
STRIVING FOR SOLUTIONS
Revamping remedial coursework policies have become a hot-button issue in community colleges across the nation, and few educators and policymakers agree on the best course of action. Legislatures in Florida, Montana, and New Jersey have proposed charging public schools for basic-skills classes that students may need to take in college, while other states have favored eliminating these prep classes.
"There are two forces colliding," said attorney Steve Ngo, a member of the City College of San Francisco board of trustees.
On the one hand, Ngo said, civil-rights advocates concerned about closing the achievement gap among minorities believe that teachers are best equipped to conceive of a successful curriculum. These groups have aligned with businesses, which have traditionally backed compact class sequences to help students advance more quickly. If the nation can't improve the graduation rates among minorities, companies needing workers will have to import skilled employees en masse or face overpaying for less qualified individuals, Ngo explained. The other camp include factions within the teachers' union who resist these changes.