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Educators Trying New Strategies to Get Students Ready for College

Higher education innovators are stepping up their efforts to promote college readiness at the high school and community college level.

Keith Plantier lectures in a "Wind Safety" course at Texas State Technical College in Sweetwater, Texas, on July, 22, 2013. The college is placing more of an emphasis on courses that will help their students find employment in the growing number of oilfields and wind farms in West Texas.

As thousands of new students step onto college and university campuses across Texas for the first time this week, educators worry that too many are arriving unprepared for the studies that await them.

Administrators and faculty attribute this perennial problem to a misalignment between both the curriculum and the expectations of the state's public and higher education systems. 

Worried about the long-term effects of this incongruity — including additional expenses for students who must stay in school longer and increased costs to public institutions that must get them up to speed — higher education innovators are stepping up their efforts to bring the two sectors into sync. 

Harrison Keller, vice provost for higher education policy and research at the University of Texas at Austin, said a lack of preparation in lower grades is preventing students from going into science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, fields — areas in which the state has been attempting to boost its productivity.

"Even with a lot of hard work, on average, about half of the kids who matriculate into STEM fields will complete in STEM fields," he said. 

To combat this, Keller has led the development at UT-Austin of OnRamps. The $3 million program, launching at 14 high schools and in one community college district this fall, offers teachers training and support, including full curriculums, instructional videos, class assignments and assessment tools designed to ensure their students are prepared for college courses.

Katie Artzt teaches 11th- and 12th-grade math at St. Dominic Savio Catholic High School in Austin and is using OnRamps in her classroom this fall. Artzt said she was motivated by concern that some of her students were leaving high school unprepared for higher education — many without realizing it.

"You get to a place where they have a harder time with stuff," she said. "They don't problem solve as well, so you're constantly having to go back and recycle and review the things you do."

According to higher education experts, starting college without adequate preparation can increase the time it takes students to graduate, meaning they will spend more money on degrees or even become discouraged from completing them.

In Texas, remedial students graduate at about half the rate of students who are college ready, according to Complete College America, a national nonprofit that aims to increase the number of college graduates nationally.

Tom Sugar, the nonprofit’s senior vice president, said many students who show up ill-prepared and are assigned to remedial courses don’t even bother finishing school; such courses cost money but do not count toward a degree.

“They're assigned remediation, and that's a deflating experience. They're told, 'You need more high school math,'" he said. "Can you imagine an experience spending money on courses that don't count for your college degree?"

Texas spends millions of dollars on college readiness initiatives every year; OnRamps, which is partially state funded, is just one example. In the 2013 session, legislators appropriated $3.7 million over the next biennium to support the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board's college readiness efforts.

In some cases, outreach at the high school level isn’t enough. At community colleges, for example, many students have been out of high school for years before they first step foot on campus.

Steve Johnson, spokesman for the Texas Association of Community Colleges, estimated that about 60 percent of students are not college ready when they first arrive on community college campuses. He noted that math is one of the biggest struggling points.

This year, nine community college districts will try out the New Mathways Project, a more than $4 million pilot program that aligns math classes to a student's desired field of study, allowing them to complete the courses faster. The program, which receives state funding, was developed by the Dana Center at UT-Austin. Fifty community colleges are scheduled to roll out the program over the next five years.

Margaret Wade, the dean of math and science at Midland College, a community college in West Texas, said it is too early to tell whether the New Mathways Project will be successful. But she agreed that college readiness must be a priority; college-level classes cannot be slowed down because some students do not understand the material, she said.

"The ideal would be that they all come to us college ready, or if they don't come to us college ready, we get them to that point as soon as possible," Wade said. 

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