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.
“If you start behind, you use up a lot of Pell grant money,” said Mark Nelson, who teaches NMC’s developmental math classes. “Some use up all their Pell grant money, and when they finally get to the place of their heart’s desire, all the money is gone.”
NMC students are generally older and are more likely to get sidelined by family and job issues, Siciliano said.
“There are sometimes heart-wrenching reasons why a student doesn't continue — a spouse passes away, a child becomes ill," he said. "These are situations we cannot control, and we have to accept that."
Nelson said NMC offered no remedial classes until the early 1970s. Over time, it added intermediate algebra, then beginning algebra, and finally, pre-algebra.
“We kept taking steps backward,” as students arrived increasingly less prepared, said Nelson. "We kept asking people, how did you not learn this? We still get people who have seen no algebra at all.”
Nelson blamed high schools for requiring too little math to graduate. Until 2010, graduates of Traverse City Area Public Schools needed just two years of math.
A relatively new state law now requires four math credits to graduate, and that's improved the picture. Students who required remedial math in the 2010-2011 transition years immediately dropped from 57.4 percent to 50.6 percent. The bad news: taxpayers are paying twice for these students to take algebra —once in high school and again in college.
Tahtinen, a single mother of two teens, has aced all her classes, despite having to juggle a full-time job and her sons' sports activities. NMC's support "absolutely" made the difference, but she saw students who just didn't take advantage of it, she said.
"I don’t think anything NMC would have done would have really mattered. I think they made their decision, to drop out or move onto other responsibilities in their life," she said.
Siciliano said success comes down to “grit” — a student’s willingness to accept hardship.
“They have to want to push through their challenging subjects,” he said. “It’s like any part of life. If they’re willing to keep at it, they’ll be successful ultimately.”
Closing the exit ramp
NMC invested significant resources to help remedial, or what they prefer to call developmental students, including:
- An introductory "Bridge" program that acclimates new students to the demands of college. Kathy Tahtinen, who had to take developmental math, said her Bridge class gave her a "lot of guidance and hope."
- A newly introduced 15-hour math boot camp that helps students place higher on math placement tests. Students' odds of graduating greatly increase if they can start right at college-level math.
- PLATO, a computer program, helps prepare students for the placement tests and supports course work. Jesse Gulley, 32, said PLATO saved him $2,100. His first crack at the placement test put him into beginning algebra, a remedial class. After spending 21 hours with Plato, he placed out of all his business degree requirements.
- A new software approach in developmental math classes will pace the material to what students can handle. That new pilot program will allow students to start the new semester exactly where they left off. Teachers walk around to students, helping where needed.
- In-depth developmental math classes are offered as an option to standard courses and English composition. They offer two hours of supplemental instruction time each week.
- Students are screened for visual and hearing problems before beginning developmental English class.
- NMC keeps class sizes small for developmental math and English. Teachers are asked to keep a close pulse on student progress and call them as soon as they sense a problem.
- NMC instructors meet periodically with Traverse City and Suttons Bay public high school teachers to ensure students are learning what they need to know for college.
- A Student Success Center, a Math Center, a Reading and Writing Center and a Tutoring Center provide students with computer access and one-one support from a multitude of people. Results? The student success rate from 2009 to 2012 increased from 60 percent to 64 percent in developmental math, and 71 percent to 72 percent in developmental English. Success is defined as students earning a 2.0 grade in the class or higher.