TRAVERSE CITY— Kathy Tahtinen couldn't recall a single, pertinent thing from high school algebra when she began taking classes at Northwestern Michigan College in January 2011.
"The only thing I remembered was the name of the teacher," she said of her re-entry into college 15 years after high school. "I had no idea of what I was getting into."
Tahtinen had to take remedial math, just like half of NMC's incoming students did that year. That percentage might seem high, but it's down significantly from 62.6 percent in 2008.
Recent reports have questioned whether remedial classes are, in fact, a bridge to nowhere. Critics complain that remedial students spend significant time and money on college, but chances are slim they'll graduate.
The nonprofit group Complete College America reports a dismal success rate in the nation's community colleges overall: only 1 in 10 remedial students graduate within three years. At NMC, 2 out of 10 remedial students graduate within four years. That compares to 36 percent who start with college-level courses, said Darby Hiller, executive director of Institutional Effectiveness.
Hiller said not to judge too quickly: some students must drop to part-time status, some have no interest in a degree, and others transfer to a different college after one year.
That said, those at most definite risk are students who begin with pre-algebra — the most fundamental remedial class. Only 4 percent end up passing college level algebra, a required course for most associate degrees, Hill said.
Stephen Siciliano, NMC's vice president for educational services, acknowledges the low odds of success, but said it's part of NMC's mission to offer everyone a chance.
"What's the alternative?” he asked. "Do we not give the opportunity to the student?"
NMC devoted intense resources to improving the success rate of those who start behind. Their first step is to help students prepare for the placement test with online practice. Statistics show a student's starting point in college is vital; the further behind they start, the less likelihood of graduation.