News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

They ain't dumb. They are just undereducated.

Bob Mercer has an article in Tuesday's paper sharing the front page top line with "Dog shot by police" on the increase of remedial classes at state universities.  He points out the percentage of incoming freshmen that require developmental instruction for each institution:

  • 47 percent, Black Hills State
  • 45 percent, Northern State
  • 38 percent, Dakota State
  • 26percent, South Dakota State
  • 23 percent, University of South Dakota 
  • 7 percent, School of Mines and Technology 
The subject areas in which remedial classes are offered is English and mathematics.  There is no breakdown in the article or on the Regents' website of what percentages need more preparatory work in each subject area.  

The increased need for developmental classes prompts recommendations from Regents offices for students to take more college preparatory classes in high school, but that approach tends to gloss over a factor which is producing the need for more developmental classes.  

During the 1960s, colleges experienced a surge in applications.  A good part of that was because of the Viet Nam War and students going to college for draft deferments more than for education.  This surge caused an expansion of campuses and the start of colleges to meet the demand.  When the draft ended, higher education experienced a declines in enrollments and has taken measures to maintain and increase enrollments to help cover the costs of running large campuses and programs without cutting back.  One approach to boosting enrollments is "open enrollment,"  which means accepting almost every student who applies no matter what their high school transcripts and entry scores look like.  

Higher education divided itself between selective schools, which set and adhered to admission standards, and non-selective schools, which accepted nearly all applicants.  A positive argument for open enrollment is that it provides students who did not perform well in high school or on the ACT or College Board tests the opportunity to pursue a college degree.  The idea was that if the students worked hard, they could earn a degree.  But it became apparent that poor preparation in high school simply did not equip many students to handle college work.  Professors began to struggle with the decisions about whether to accommodate the poorly prepared students by lowering the level of instruction and standards for passing courses or to offer remedial instruction.  In effect, many colleges did both.  

In my field, "bonehead" English was an established feature at many colleges.  When after World War II, veterans flocked to campuses under the G.I. Bill, many of them did not have the writing skills needed for college work, so most colleges created courses intended to bring them up to the level of proficiency needed.  At the first college I taught at, there was a 3-hour a week freshman composition course and a 4-hour freshman composition course for those who needed the catch-up instruction.  For the veterans this arrangement worked, and they appreciated the opportunity to catch up.  However, by the time I began college teaching, it was considered a stigma for students to be assigned to "bonehead" English, and they resented the designation and  were contentious about the classes.  At places such as the University of Iowa, students who needed to catch up were assigned to writing laboratories where they received individual help and instruction with writing assignments.  In some cases, the students were not permitted to enroll in freshman English until they could pass a proficiency test after working in the writing lab.  In other cases, they would enroll in regular classes and received help with the assignments.  Generally, the writing labs produced better results.

NSU was an open enrollment institution, and dealing with underprepared students caused some bitter friction between the administration and faculty.  The administration put a limit on how many students were referred for remedial instruction, so that only those in the most dire need were given the attention.  This left a number of poorly prepared students to enroll in the regular courses, so that the matter of whether to dummy down the course work still confronted the faculty.  I recall at one point that 54 percent of an incoming freshman class scored low enough on their English ACT scores to be considered as remedial.  The faculty thought that if the college admitted unqualified students, it was obligated to provide them with the means to succeed, rather than flounder and fail.  It became apparent to faculty that the low-performing students were admitted for economic reasons.  They were admitted to bolster the budget with their tuition, which has had huge increases in recent years.  Raking tuition off of students destined to fail was considered a scam by most faculty.  

In South Dakota, the problem has not really been solved.  It is reflected in the retention rates of how many students return for a second year of college.  Below is a chart that shows the retention rates at each institution for recent years.
      FY04    05    06    07    08    09    10    11    12    13
BHSU  54    52    53    50    58    56    58    59    59    65
DSU    63    60    67    63    69    74    61    62    67    60
NSU    63    60    61    56    61    68    65    64    68    67
SDSMT70    63    72    74    76    76    83    78    79    80
SDSU  74    74    73    76    75    75    75    75    73    75
USD    66    67    67    69    70    72    70    72    78    75
Avg     67    66    67    69    70    71    71    71    72    72

 The average retention rate for South Dakota is 72 percent.  The national rate is 79 percent, according to press reports.  However, retention rates among the institutions vary by 20 points.  The only institution to be at the national average is the School of Mines and Technology.  

Last year, the Regents held a conference with national speakers aimed at increasing the retention rate, but changes made for that purpose have not seemed to have much effect.  An axiom in higher education is that admissions set the stage for academic success.  There is a correlation between the number of students who need remedial instruction and retention and graduation rates. That pattern seems reflected in the fact that only 7 percent of the students admitted to the School of Mines and Technology require remedial work and its retention rate is 80 percent for this year.  

There are other, cultural factors that affect retention rates, but the effectiveness of developmental instruction is a clear factor.  At my former institution, NSU, 41 percent of the incoming students need catch up work but 33 percent do not return for their second year.  

These numbers make all the testing and schemes to designated and reward superior teachers superfluous.   At some point, those who teach will have to be allowed to do their jobs of assessing student needs and devising ways to meet them, rather being maligned and burdened with competitive and morale-breaking schemes such as Referred Law 16 on this year's election ballot. 

If those who presume to oversee education consulted with those who do the actual work in the classrooms about what can make students perform better, they might find some solutions that actually work.  Many students regard school as a repressive burden.  Current policies and administrative practices make many teachers think so, too. 


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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States