Two-thirds of all students who enter a community college in New Jersey are placed in at least one remedial or developmental course. Some may take three or four. More than half never graduate.

The cost of that failure is steep. The Alliance for Excellent Education in 2006 calculated the annual cost of community college remediation at $1.4 billion nationally and $45 million in New Jersey. Almost 70 percent of the cost is paid with taxpayer money.

New Jersey’s community colleges are developing a plan to reverse that trend that includes reaching into high schools and even middle schools and rethinking how they teach these students once they get to college.

But they know it’s an uphill battle. Only 15 percent of full-time students graduate within three years, according to data filed with the U.S. Department of Education and the New Jersey Commission on Higher Education.

Martha Madronero, of Ventnor, is one of them. She will graduate from Atlantic Cape Community College on May 20 with a 3.5 grade average despite having started in remedial math. Madronero said some of her most important lessons were not learned in a classroom:

  • She learned that the online Accuplacer placement test would label her as someone not prepared to tackle college level work and force her into an extra semester of classes.
  • She learned that credits she earned for taking required remedial-level classes did not apply to her degree, which meant it took her longer to finish college.
  • She learned that working full time and going to school is very hard, and it’s easy to fall behind.

“This is your future,” she said of the message she hopes to take back to high school students. “You have to be more aware.”

Madronero, 20, is in many ways a typical community college student. She is the first in her family to attend college. She worked, often full time, while attending classes. But she differs in one crucial way: She did not give up.

Many of her peers are not so determined.

Only 62 percent of all New Jersey community college freshmen returned for a second year in 2008, according to the college data provided to the N.J. Commission on Higher Education. While most community college degrees are designed to be completed in two years, only 5 percent of the Class of 2008 graduated in that time. Another 17 percent transferred out before graduating. 

The lack of preparedness of so many students entering community college — nationally about 60 percent of new students are placed in remedial courses — is considered a primary factor in the poor graduation rates, making remediation a major concern at the nation’s more than 1,100 community colleges and among policy makers.  

But despite years of review, discussion and pilot programs, there has been limited progress. Students who don’t drop out, or flunk out, can eventually run out of financial aid, pile up student loans, and still have no diploma.

“For too many students, the open-door policy at community colleges becomes a revolving door,” Atlantic Cape Community College President Peter Mora said. “They’re here for a semester, or a year, then they’re out.”

“There is a move away from just providing access, to getting outcomes,” said Tom Bailey, executive director of the Community College Research Center, or CCRC,  at Columbia University in New York. 

How to do that has proved elusive.

The Lumina Foundation has worked for several years to improve community college completion rates through its Achieving the Dream project at more than 100 colleges in 22 states. Some programs have improved student retention and graduation rates, though not as much as desired.

An April report on an intensive intervention program at Northern Valley Community College in Virginia found 17 percent of participants graduated in three years, compared with 12 percent collegewide; it’s an improved, but still less than ideal, result.

Last month the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced it would invest $110 million to help develop new ways to deliver remedial education. In an address to the annual conference of the American Association of Community Colleges, Melinda Gates called improving remediation the single most important thing community colleges can do to increase the number of students who graduate.

New Jersey’s 19 community colleges have begun their own project to address remediation, or as college officials prefer to call it, developmental education. Jacob Farbman, spokesman for the New Jersey Council of County Colleges, said task forces are working on three major issues that dovetail with the Gates Foundation’s goals:

  • Partner with kindergarten-through-twelfth-grade systems to help assure graduates are college-ready.
  • Improve the testing and placement practices for remedial courses to make sure students are matched to the proper level of coursework.
  • Strengthen how remedial classes are offered to improve student success rates.

The N.J. Developmental Education Initiative task force reports are due in June with recommendations to the college trustees expected by the end of the year.

A lifetime goal

For Madronero, the path to college began in Colombia. She was just 7 when her mother brought her and her sister to Ventnor, where they have family, because she wanted more for her children than her own life as a clothing factory worker could provide.

“It was stable work, but there wasn’t a future,” Madronero said. “An aunt helped us come here. My mother came here for us.”

In sixth grade she was chosen to be a peer mediator, working with other students. Ventnor Middle School guidance counselor Rosemary Mannel became her role model.

“The way she helped everyone,” Madronero said, “I thought, this is what I want to do.”

At Atlantic City High School, she found a home in the JROTC military-themed program.

“That was a great experience,” she said. “Chief (Rodney) Mayes would say that if he told you to do something, you are really doing it for yourself. I was afraid to go to college, but he suggested I start here (at ACCC), then move on. He was an inspiration and motivation.”

But as the first in her family to attend college, she knew little of what to expect. So she just did what she was told.

Almost all colleges require entering freshmen to take a placement test to gauge their level of coursework. New Jersey’s community colleges use the Accuplacer, provided by the College Board, which also offers the more well-known SAT and Advanced Placement programs.

Madronero took the Accuplacer at ACCC without any preparation. No one had suggested she prepare, or offered help. She didn’t take math in her senior year in high school, so her skills were rusty and the test placed her in a remedial class.

“I was not aware at all how important that test is,” she said. “It decides what courses you get to take. If I’d understood, I would have done more to prepare. When I got in the (remedial math) class, I realized I know this. I just needed to review.”

But she also discovered how many students were struggling.

“On the first day of class you couldn’t find a seat,” she said. “Then it started emptying out, and you wonder, where did they go?”

She also took a required computer skills class that she later learned she could have asked to test out of by demonstrating she knew the required skills. 

In a way, Madronero was lucky. She required only one level of remediation. But she didn’t realize until her second year that while she got credit for the math and computer courses, those credits did not apply to her degree.

“My first semester was of no use,” she said, the frustration still in her voice. “Remedial is like repeating high school. I could have been done (at ACCC) by now.”

Graduated, but not prepared

Community college officials cringe when they hear the term “grade 13,” but it is a fair description of many students’ first year at a community college. ACCC President Peter Mora traces the rise of the remediation issue to the 1960s, when community colleges became open access.

“If you have not taken a college preparatory program in high school, you are not prepared for college,”   Mora said. “And passing the HSPA (state high school graduation test) does not mean you can meet the passing score on the Accuplacer.”

State legislators were appalled in 2006 to discover that almost 30 percent of the 1,680 new NJSTARS community college scholarship recipients, who by definition were in the top 20 percent of their high school graduating class, had to take at least one remedial course.

Data from ACCC show that almost half of all students under 21 test into remedial courses, compared with about a third of all students older than 21.   The state Department of Education has begun implementing tougher high school graduation requirements as part of its High School Reform project.

The state’s community colleges have begun projects to work more with their local high schools.  Dual-credit courses and programs with names such as Bridge and Jump Start introduce high school students to college work.

In its June 2009 report, the Ocean County College Developmental Education Roundtable made one of its top recommendations to include Accuplacer testing in county high schools as part of its Bridge program.

But ultimately, what community colleges provide is opportunity. They do not guarantee success.

“Developmental courses are the great equalizer,” said Janet Hubbs, assistant to the president at OCC. “What we say is that we will do our darndest to help, but you don’t get forever to catch up.”

Sometimes even extra help doesn’t work, at least not as much as hoped. A  2006 experimental  program at OCC found that a group of remedial students who got extra support did not perform appreciably better than those who did not get the help.

ACCC’s Mora calls remediation a promise, that once students complete the courses they are ready to succeed in college. 

“If we just provide access without excellence it is a betrayal,” he said.  “Remediation does work, but not for as many students as we’d like. The challenge is how to do it to maximize student success.”

CCRC’s Bailey said as enrollment has skyrocketed at community colleges, the issue of open access is again under debate, including the question of whether there should be admission requirements. Placement testing and remediation could become ways to weed out those least likely to succeed.

Ready to succeed

A lot has happened to Madronero during her three years at ACCC.  When she started, she was working full time at Ventnor Beauty Supply, and admits she got behind on her class work.

“It was all catching up to me,” she said.  “I was trying to balance work and school because I needed money for gas and books.”

As the recession hit, her job was cut to part time, which gave her more time to study, but less money. Her stepfather lost his job and she wondered if she should try to work more to help out at home.

She took only 12 credits most semesters, which kept her full-time status, but contributed to the extra year she needed to graduate.  Students must take at least 15 credits, or five courses, each semester to complete a typical program in two years.

“It’s been very stressful,” she said. “I took 15 credits one semester, and it was the hardest thing.”

But she also matured. She was accepted into the Equal Opportunity Fund program for first-generation college students, which offered counseling and support. She is now president of the Alliance of EOF students.

“I think I got more dedicated,” she said. “I learned how to organize better and I wasn’t working as much, only about 25-30 hours a week.”

She has made the Dean’s List the last three semesters in a row at ACCC, retook a Sociology class she had gotten a D in her first semester, and was accepted into Chi Alpha Epsilon National Academic Honor Society.  She plans to transfer to Richard Stockton College in Galloway Township to complete her bachelor’s degree and become a teacher.

She can’t wait for graduation. She wants to set an example for her niece and show her mother that she made the right decision to come to America.

“Every time I accomplish something, just seeing her eyes, she is so proud.” Madronero said of her mother.

Madronero has been chosen as the 2010-2011 alumni representative on the ACCC Board of Trustees. Her goal is to go into high schools and tell students what she learned about how to better prepare for college.

“I hope I can go back to talk to them, because I did have the experience, and maybe they can learn from me” she said. “There is more they can do to prepare. “

Contact Diane D’Amico:

609-272-7241