AUGUSTA — Basic skills continue to be a challenge for many students entering Maine’s public colleges and universities, in some cases hampering their prospects for success.
The University of Maine System and Maine Community College System reported last week on the number of Maine freshmen who took remedial courses in math or English in the fall, as required annually by a law passed in 2012. Maine Maritime Academy is also required to report but does not offer remedial courses.
The data are similar to last year’s. In the university system, 11.4 percent of first-year students entering directly from Maine high schools took a remedial class, down from 12.1 percent in fall 2012. At the community colleges, the figure was 52.2 percent, up from 50.2 percent.
At the University of Maine at Augusta, 68 of the 167 new graduates from Maine high schools took a remedial course, or 40.7 percent. Fifty took remedial math, 36 took remedial English, and 18 took both. The remediation rate at UMA in fall 2012 was slightly lower, 37.2 percent.
What’s new this year is information about the persistence of students who took remedial courses in their first year, a factor that’s associated with lower graduation rates.
Of 325 freshmen who took a remedial course in the university system in fall 2012, 203 were still enrolled in fall 2013, a retention rate of 62.5 percent. That compares to 75.9 percent for all freshmen who enrolled directly from Maine high schools in 2012.
“There’s a direct link, as you can see in the data, between students who require remediation and their ability to be successful in college. And that’s true nationally,” said Rosa Redonnett, the university system’s chief student affairs officer. “It’s very telling that if you come into college with an academic deficiency, you’re going to have difficulty.”
The retention rate for remedial students was 51.4 percent at the community colleges, ranging from 25 percent at Washington County Community College to 66.7 percent at York County Community College. A comparison with other students who started in 2012 was not available Friday.
Remedial courses, also called developmental, don’t count for credit but typically cost the same as any other class, creating strain on a student’s schedule and finances. The nonprofit group Complete College America, which calls remediation a “bridge to nowhere,” reported that nearly four in 10 students placed in remedial classes never finish them.
Remediation is also associated with low graduation rates. According to Complete College America, only 9.5 percent of students who took a remedial course at a two-year college graduated within three years, and only 35.1 percent graduated from a four-year college within six years.
Maine’s public colleges and universities will eventually be required to report on graduation rates for remedial students, but not enough time has yet passed.
The law also requires the higher education systems to make recommendations to decrease the need for remediation and to improve retention and graduation rates of students who take remedial courses.
The Maine Community College System’s report says the system will focus on those issues in developing a five-year plan in coordination with the university system, Maine Maritime Academy and Maine Department of Education, as directed by a special legislative committee last year.
Redonnett said the University of Maine System is working on a variety of efforts, such as working with school districts to implement the Common Core State Standards, which are supposed to improve college readiness.
For students already enrolled in the universities, strategies include first-year seminars to enhance incoming students’ connection to peers and professors and incorporating support services into 100-level courses so students can skip remedial courses in some cases, Redonnett said.
At most of the seven campuses in the university system, the retention rates for 2012’s freshmen who took remedial courses were within a couple of percentage points either way of the retention rate for the total cohort. Only at the University of Maine at Fort Kent and the University of Maine at Presque Isle were retention rates significantly lower for the remedial students — a 12-point gap at Fort Kent and a 10-point gap at Presque Isle.
Redonnett said she hasn’t had the chance to look more closely at why the students who took remedial courses fared worse at those campuses. She said it could be connected to the demographics of northern Maine, where incomes and educational attainment are generally lower than in the rest of the state.
The remediation reports also show how many students from each Maine high school needed remedial classes.
The high schools with the highest percentages of students needing remediation differ significantly from the 2013 report to the 2014 report, though a few schools are near the top of the list both years.
In both years, more than 70 percent of graduates who attended a Maine community college from Bonny Eagle High School in Standish, Calais High School, Mount Blue High School in Farmington, Mount Desert Island High School in Bar Harbor and Oceanside High School in Rockland took a remedial class. Bonny Eagle and Oceanside also had a higher than average percentage of graduates who needed remediation in the university system.
Gov. Paul LePage has repeatedly called attention to the problem of students graduating from high school being unprepared for higher education or the workforce, including during last year’s State of the State Address.
LePage proposed holding local school districts responsible for their graduates’ remediation needs by reducing a district’s state aid for each graduate taking a remedial class, redirecting those funds to the higher education institutions. The governor’s bill failed in the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee last spring.
Asked about LePage’s plans to address the issue of remediation, spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett did not respond specifically but said the governor’s education-related bills are likely to be submitted after all welfare reform bills are introduced.
Education committee co-chairman Rep. Bruce MacDonald, D-Boothbay, questioned the usefulness of the remediation reports, which he said feed into the occasional tendency in education to push blame downward.
“It is trying to prove a point that public schools are not doing a good job,” he said.
MacDonald said student success is complex, depending on much more than the quality of a school.
Although the number of Maine students taking remedial courses is significant, it’s lower than in other states.
Complete College America reported that 20 percent of students entering four-year colleges in 2006 took a remedial course, while the National Center for Education Statistics said the averages were 24 percent and 39 percent at two different types of public, four-year universities for the class entering in 2007.
At community colleges, figures range from 42 percent taking a remedial course, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, up to nearly 60 percent in three studies cited by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University.