Where Community Colleges Go Wrong

Excerpt from Jay Mathews blog.

Susan Headden begins her eye-opening piece in the September/October issue of the Washington Monthly with the unsettling story of Monica Dekany, a California mom barred from taking courses at a local community college for no good reason.

Like most of America’s two-year colleges, Golden West College in Huntington Beach asked her to take a short, computerized placement test. The college used the most popular one, called Accuplacer. When her score was below the level the college set for its for-credit courses, she was shunted to remedial courses that earned no credit but which she still had to pay for. The college’s placement system ignored the fact that she had already passed similar for-credit courses at other colleges years before.

For Dekany, the remedial courses were a breeze. Their instructors saw she had been misplaced and helped her get around the rules. One professor even helped her sign up for a for-credit math course at another college when Golden West insisted she needed more remediation.

Now, Headden reports, Dekany is “a member of the Alpha Gamma Sigma honors society, a reporter for the Golden West college newspaper and the school’s homecoming queen. She’s just a semester away from getting her associate’s degree in social science and on her way to a bachelor’s in counseling. But there’s no getting back what the Accuplacer took from her. Remediation cost her several thousand dollars and set her education and her career back a year.”

I have written about problems with the community college placement system, including new research indicating the remedial courses often do no good.

But Headden, a senior writer/editor at the Education Sector think tank in the District, explains the issue better than anyone ever has. Many who read her piece will be outraged, and want community colleges — which educate nearly half of the undergraduates in the country — to do something about it.

But will they? Most of them are struggling with budget cuts and more applicants than they can handle. Education writers like me rarely report what they are doing. We prefer to pay attention to the upper crust four-year schools that readers have heard of and yearn for their children to attend.

Still, Headden rips apart all the excuses for inaction. “The remedial placement process is ground zero for college noncompletion in America,” she says. “If the nation is going to make any headway in helping more students graduate from college, it will have to completely overhaul the way students enrolling in nonselective colleges are tested for college readiness, and make fundamental changes in how colleges use that information to help students earn degrees...”