As Texas tries to educate a growing number of college students who come from struggling schools or speak English as a second language, a grim stat highlights the challenge it faces: 60 percent of all students who enroll in community college are not considered college ready.
Another grim number shows there's no easy solution: Only 15 percent of students who take a math course designed to catch them up end up passing a single college-level math class.
That means a lot of students are striking out before their college careers really get started. This year, the state will attempt to radically change that. A new state law that passed this spring calls for an overhaul of developmental education in the state. Once implemented, it will dramatically shake up how most community colleges prepare their students for the rigor of higher education.
"These students need advising, they need direction, and what we are doing now simply isn't working," said Rep. Helen Giddings, D-DeSoto, who authored the law, House Bill 2223.
Community colleges are tentatively on board, saying they recognize the current system isn’t working. But they warn that bringing about a fix will take time and might be expensive.
This is the challenge they face: Anyone with a high school degree can enroll in a community college, no matter their educational background. GPA, SAT scores and language skills don't matter.
"We have students walking in our door who are reading at a ninth-grade level," San Jacinto College administrator Rebecca Goosen told lawmakers this spring. "We have students who don't understand what a number line is. We have students who — fractions just kind of freak them out. And they have high school diplomas."
Right now, most colleges put students with low test scores in remedial courses, which are designed to teach those students what they should have learned in high school. The thinking is simple: You can’t take a college calculus class if you don’t know high school algebra.
But that can be frustrating. Those courses don't usually count for credit, and some students end up having to take — and pay for — a year’s worth of remedial classes before moving on to standard course loads.
In addition, many of those students are poor and in school part time. Keeping those students in school is already a challenge. Any kind of disturbance — a sick parent, a change in job hours, a broken-down car that makes it harder to get to school — might force a student to put his or her education on hold. The remedial courses lengthen the time it takes to earn a degree, making it more likely that something else will get in the way.
Giddings’ solution is to get those students in courses that count for credit sooner by implementing what’s known as a "corequisite" model, during which the students take the remedial courses that run concurrently with their college-level classes.
Models can vary. In one favored by many education reformers, remedial students take a standard three-hour math course but also have a one-hour course on the side that helps them develop the skills needed to succeed in the main class. That one-hour portion could work like a lab in a science course — it meets during another time of the week in a smaller setting.
Another option, experts say, is a semester broken into two — the first eight weeks are remedial, the next eight are the standard courses.
What kind of courses the state would require will be ironed out by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board in the coming months. But one thing is clear: By the 2020-21 academic year, colleges will be required to have at least three-fourths of their remedial students in corequisite courses.
That would put the state at the forefront of a movement that has been slow to gain momentum in other parts of the country.
“This is a major reform,” said Jacob Fraire, president and CEO of the Texas Association of Community Colleges. “It is a major rethinking of how we provide instruction.”
But big changes always make people nervous. Some community college leaders predict that the new rules will be expensive — some corequisite courses will probably require two professors. And the reduction in class hours taken by students could mean that colleges will lose some state funding, which is determined in part by the amount of hours their students are taking.
But Giddings said she’s not too worried about the colleges’ hesitation. Her bill originally required schools to have 100 percent of their students in corequisite courses. The percentage was knocked down at the request of the colleges, which asked for a little more flexibility.
But she points to Tennessee, which has a 100 percent model. In that state, the number of remedial students passing a college-level math course jumped from 12 percent to 51 percent after a corequisite model was imposed, according to one study by the state.
“I’m not worried at all about whether we will reach our goal,” she said. “I’m concerned that we didn’t go all the way.”
Disclosure: San Jacinto College and the Texas Association of Community Colleges have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.