AUGUSTA — Every year, thousands of students enrolling in Maine colleges and universities find out they lack the basic reading, writing or math skills to take even basic courses.

That means taking remedial courses, for which the students pay regular tuition but don’t earn credits. The classes delay students’ progress toward degrees and cause financial aid to run out faster, or force the students to borrow more.

Remedial courses aren’t good for colleges and universities, either, even though they bring in tuition money.

“It taxes facilities,” said Scott Knapp, president of Central Maine Community College in Auburn. “We spend money on that that we would rather spend to expand our programs and be able to take in more students and to add technology. All things considered, we would rather be out of remedial business.”

Gov. Paul LePage drew attention to the issue last week, when he announced that he would propose legislation requiring high schools to pay for their graduates’ remedial courses. LePage said he is not sure how the system would be set up and does not know of any precedents in other states.

Parents and taxpayers pay twice when college students need remediation, LePage said, and charging local schools would give them extra incentive to ensure that students can meet standards before graduating.

Fifty-four percent of students entering the Maine Community College System from high school need remediation, as do 18 percent of first-time students in the University of Maine System.

Every state is grappling with the question of how to make sure that high school graduates are prepared for college and what to do about ones who aren’t. According to one national study, the need for remediation costs Americans billions of dollars annually.

Education leaders acknowledge the scope of the problem but say there are more effective ways to address it than what LePage has proposed.

“I think that we would be better off investing our funds in applying it to professional development for staff, for additional instruction for students, to correct any deficiencies that might exist,” said Dale Douglass, executive director for Maine School Management Association. “The earlier we intervene to address learning issues, the better off we’re going to be.”

Douglass said responsibility for learning is shared between schools, students and parents, and problems need to be addressed on an individual and school level.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 36 percent of first-year undergraduates in 2007-08 took at least one remedial course.

The rate was 42 percent at public two-year colleges, compared to Maine’s community college rate of 54 percent, which is calculated as a three-year average from 2007 to 2010.

At public four-year institutions, 31 percent first-year undergraduates needed remediation, compared to the University of Maine System’s rate of 18 percent for 2010-11.

Remedial students in the university system took about 1.5 remedial courses on average and spent $1.5 million on tuition, fees, books and other expenses.

The Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington-based advocacy group, estimated last year that Maine students spent $13 million on remedial education in 2007-08 and lost $5.8 million in additional earnings because students who need remediation are less likely to graduate.

The group estimated the national financial impact at $3.6 billion in educational costs and $2 billion in lost wages.

A new law seeks to provide more information about the effectiveness of remedial education in Maine.

Starting this year, Maine’s public colleges and universities must report remediation data to the Department of Education and the Legislature, including retention and graduation rates for remedial students and where those students received diplomas.

Transition programs

Most colleges and universities in Maine use the College Board’s Accuplacer exam to determine whether students have the reading, writing and math skills they need.

Knapp said about half of the remedial courses at Central Maine Community College are taken in math because people use reading and writing more in their everyday lives.

If students are too far behind, they may be referred to a local adult education department that offers a college transition program.

College transition programs are inexpensive or even free other than the cost of books.

“The advantage is, if you’re borrowing money or spending your hard-earned money, it’s not being borrowed or spent for classes that are not working toward a degree,” said Zane Clement, Augusta’s director of adult education.

Clement said the program can boost students’ confidence and ease the burden on community colleges.

According to the Maine Adult Education Association, 5,301 people were enrolled in all college transition programs in 2010.

Knapp said many students prefer to complete remediation at Central Maine Community College, even though it costs more. Their local adult education programs might not have the courses they need, and being at the college allows them to take other classes more easily.

“Especially with regard to students coming directly from high school, they want to be thought of as being college students,” Knapp said. “If you tell them they have to go back someplace else, maybe at night to the high school from which they just graduated, many of those students will just walk away from education, and we’ll never see them again.”

Key to access

Remediation may have disadvantages for both students and educational institutions. But it’s vital for providing access, a part of the mission for community colleges and the University of Maine at Augusta, said Jonathan Henry, UMA’s vice president for enrollment management.

Henry said UMA probably provides more remediation than any other public university in Maine because it has many older students who have not been in an academic setting in several years.

He said university staff have discussed reducing remedial costs by not admitting students who need those courses, but decided against it.

“I think there’s a promise we need to keep to these students that they don’t have to be shunted off to some other situation if they are ready emotionally and socially for a university experience,” Henry said.

He said state policy decisions that have already been made could reduce the need for remediation, particularly the adoption of the Common Core curriculum standards and proficiency-based diplomas. Under the proficiency-based system, students are expected to demonstrate knowledge of certain concepts — and they’re given more choices in order to do that — before being allowed to advance to the next grade level.

Henry said he’s not sure whether LePage’s proposal to force high schools to pay for remedial courses makes sense. It might be more effective to put more money into adult education or add time to high school, he said.

Asked for his opinion on LePage’s idea, Knapp said he would leave the decisions up to the governor and the Legislature.

Knapp said the need for remediation is a national problem, not just Maine’s.

“I don’t know that there are any serious bad guys here,” he said. “Across the board … it’s something that the secondary education people are really talking about. Everybody sees that there’s a problem here.”