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Florida's colleges are using computer-based courses to allow students to complete their remedial courses at their own pace. Students can quickly complete the lessons -- or modules -- they understand.
Jamille Cunningham’s primary learning tool in her remedial reading course at St. Petersburg College is a computer program.
When Cunningham, 20, started the course, the program diagnosed her as weak in all but a handful of reading skills. It then directed her to a series of learning modules focused on skills she needed to improve, including reading comprehension and organizing ideas. The program also allowed her to bypass exercises in skills she had proficiency in. Her instructor goes over exercises in class and also follows her progress in the computer modules online.
A high school drop-out who passed her G.E.D. test on the third try, Cunningham has worked hard to complete the learning exercises, games and tests at her own pace. She can move through the material faster than if she were in a traditional remedial class where all students must sit through the same lessons. On her computer screen, she proudly points out the check marks beside more than half of the listed modules, indicating she has now mastered those skills.
“I’m really excited. I like this class,” Cunningham said. “It helps me write papers and to actually think about what I’m saying.”
Sagette Van Embden / Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
Chad Carroll, 36, needed to take remedial math classes when he enrolled in Miami Dade College. He isn’t alone. For Florida college students age 35 and older, 90 percent must take remedial math courses before they can begin college-level studies. “I didn’t accept it at first, but you have to embrace it,” Carroll said of remedial education.
Pepper Harth has always loved music. After high school, she studied voice and acting in New York. Her life took several turns. She married, had three children, divorced and sold real estate in New Jersey. She moved with her children to Seminole, Fla., in 2007. Work was not as plentiful in Florida as she had expected. She got by singing at nightclubs and weddings.
Last year, at 49, the single mom decided she wanted to do something more with her musical talents. Harth applied for federal financial aid and enrolled in the music degree program at St. Petersburg College in Seminole. Now 50, she aspires to use her future degree to practice music therapy in the health care industry.
Harth’s plans were set back, however, when she took the placement test that all Florida students must take before entering community college. She failed the math section. She wasn’t surprised: Math was never an easy subject for Harth in school, and that was more than 30 years ago.
Failing the math section didn’t mean she couldn’t go back to school. But it did mean that she had to take two remedial math courses before she could move on to college-level algebra. Actually, that turned into three semesters of remedial classes — she had to repeat one course.
Because the remedial courses don’t count for credit toward her music degree, Harth’s educational journey will take longer than she expected. It’s increasing her student loan debt — three-hour courses cost in-state residents between $300 and $350 at St. Petersburg College. And it’s costing Florida taxpayers who subsidize higher ed, as well as federal taxpayers who support her Pell Grant.
There are a lot of people in Florida going through what Pepper Harth is going through. Remedial classes in math, reading and writing are seeing a surge of students at Florida’s 28 community and state colleges — schools where all students are welcome as long as they have a high school diploma or G.E.D. From 2004 to 2011, Florida’s remedial education costs for both students and schools ballooned from $118 million to $168 million.
Sagette Van Embden / Florida Center for Investigative Journalism
Wendy Pedroso did well in math classes -- until her first algebra course. Twice as many students at Florida colleges took a remedial math course than took a remedial writing or reading course.
Wendy Pedroso has never liked math, but for most of elementary school and middle school she got B’s in the subject. It wasn’t until ninth grade at Miami Southwest Senior High School, when Pedroso took algebra, that she hit a wall. In particular, she struggled with understanding fractions.
“I kept getting stuck in the same place,” Pedroso, 20, recalled recently. She failed the class, and worried that she’d never get to go to college. Pedroso sought help from tutors, took algebra again over the summer and passed. She went on to graduate from high school in 2011.
Pedroso enrolled at Miami Dade College’s campus in Kendall. Like all of Florida’s community and state colleges, Miami Dade accepts anyone with a high school diploma or G.E.D. But students must take a placement test to assess their basic skills. Pedroso’s struggles with math caught up with her again: She failed the math section of the test.
It meant that she had to take a remedial math class. The course cost Pedroso $300 like any other class at Miami Dade College but did not count as credit toward graduation. Although she could take college-level courses in other subjects, Pedroso couldn’t begin taking college-level courses in math until she passed the remedial course.
Pedroso was embarrassed.
“I thought that it was going to be very hard to get through college,” she said.
Across Florida, remedial classes at community and state colleges are full with students like Pedroso. More than half of the high school graduates who took the college placement test had to take at least one remedial class. And while many of those students struggle with basic reading and writing skills, the subject they’re most unprepared for in college is math.
In the 2010-11 school year, some 125,042 Florida college students needed to take a remedial math class, an investigation by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting and StateImpact Florida has found. That number has been growing for some time, and is more than double the number requiring remedial classes in reading (54,489) or writing (50,906).
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Remedial courses cost students and schools money. And the need for remedial courses makes it less likely students complete their studies -- and likely boost their earnings.
Students and Florida taxpayers pay a price for remedial education in several ways
From 2004 to 2011, Florida’s remedial education costs for both students and schools ballooned from $118 million to $168 million. At the same time, state college funding has declined $544 million since 2007, causing tuition increases and creating a greater need for publicly funded financial aid.
Research shows that young adults with college degrees earn about 40 percent more than those with some college and around two-thirds more than people with a high school diploma.
The dropout rate of Florida’s 2010 graduating class cost the state $132 million in lost income and $19 million in lost federal taxes, according to an American Institute for Research estimates.