False Hope

It's time to admit that some remedial education has so little chance of success that completely open admissions systems don't help anyone, writes Roy Flores.

February 17, 2011

Each year, Pima Community College, a diverse six-campus system in Tucson, attempts to get thousands of underprepared students ready for college coursework. In 2009, 89 percent our students who were new to higher education and were recent high school graduates were not ready for college mathematics, as measured by assessment testing. Astonishingly, 35 percent did not read at a college-entry level; 51 percent did not meet college standards in writing. Pima spends more than $20 million a year on "developmental education," which the layperson would define as remedial education. These realities, and the ongoing economic crisis in Arizona, have led us to ask hard questions about how we can best serve our students.

Pima’s developmental education outcomes are no worse than those at many other community colleges around the nation:

  • Of those students taking remedial mathematics in fall 2004, only 4.1 percent who began in the lowest of three remedial classes had graduated with an associate degree by fall 2009.
  • Using another measure of outcomes, for students taking remedial reading in fall 2004, of those who began in the lowest of three levels, 2.2 percent had taken a college-level reading course, and 6.1 percent had taken any college-level course by fall 2006.

In summary, students testing into the lowest levels of developmental education have virtually no chance of ever moving beyond remedial work and achieving their educational goals. For those students and their families, developmental education is expensive and demoralizing.

So, armed with the knowledge that for underprepared students traditional approaches to course creation and delivery do not work, we are looking at the topic in a different way. "Strengthening Developmental Education" is a central initiative of our 2011-13 college plan,. We intend to examine promising developmental education approaches at other community colleges, improve assessment and testing, enhance professional development for faculty and staff, and pilot varied methods of developmental education delivery. We will determine which approaches can serve many students, and tailor those approaches to students who research shows will be able to benefit the most. In short, we are planning an overhaul of developmental education.

However, our plan also embodies the realization that we cannot help every student. Thus, Pima is redefining its open-door admissions policy. Over our 40-year history, PCC has been accessible to almost anyone, and more than 750,000 people have come through our doors to achieve their dreams. Arizona law mandates that admission be granted to any person who “demonstrates evidence of potential success in the community college.” But, as our outcomes data show, some people who come here simply have not received the education needed to succeed in college. To admit those men and women – some of whom have the equivalent of no better than a middle-school education -- and accept their tuition payment, knowing that they have virtually no chance of becoming college-ready, is callous at best.

The college thus intends to amend its open admissions policy for degree- and certificate-seeking students 18 and older to require a high school diploma or its equivalent, and to require appropriate scores on assessment tests. Only students who score at the very bottom will not be admitted. Pima will refer students who do not meet acceptance standards and who otherwise qualify to resources that can help them overcome academic deficiencies, such as our adult education program, should it continue to receive funding.

The college would be obligated to make this change regardless of the economic climate, but given Arizona’s severe financial problems, the need for a new direction for developmental education is even more urgent. Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, facing billion-dollar deficits over the next several years, has proposed a 56 percent reduction in state appropriations to our college for the 2012 fiscal year. It is an unprecedentedly harsh cut, even in the context of the 30 percent reduction in state aid that Pima has absorbed over the past two years. The state is sending us an explicit message. You must drastically reduce programs and services.

The governor’s slashing of funding to Pima, and to other community colleges in the state, comes amid ongoing economic hardship in southern Arizona. In Pima County, unemployment stubbornly remains higher than 9 percent, and many who have lost their jobs are coming to the college to restart their careers; full-time student equivalent enrollment rose by 13 percent in 2009 over 2008. Moreover, area real estate prices have plummeted, and new construction is virtually nonexistent, diminishing our college's property tax revenue. These realities are creating a hard choice for us: fund developmental education programs with a poor track record, or successful occupational education and other programs aimed at those most desperate for our help. Asked to do more with less, Pima understands that it can no longer be all things to all people. We recognize that, first and foremost, we are a college. In establishing the college, the people of Pima County sought to create an institution of higher learning where students respect the value of education. Responsible governance demands that we direct our limited resources where our constituents have directed us, and where our money will have the best chance of doing some good.

Altering our open-door admissions policy is best for students and the community. Moreover, we believe that establishing new admission standards will spur an honest examination of education in Pima County. As part of its 2011-13 plan, Pima intends to organize town halls and other events to get the community conversation started. We hope to bring together educators, employers, leaders of community- and faith-based organizations, parents and students to talk about college readiness and the impact on the region of an undereducated citizenry. The troubling truths forcing Pima Community College’s redefinition of admission standards must be discussed honestly by all stakeholders. Education remains the key for the state to return to prosperity. Arizona must increase the number of residents with postsecondary certificates and degrees. As the state works toward this goal, everyone can have a voice. There is plenty of work to do.


Roy Flores is chancellor of Pima Community College.


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