Friday, December 12, 2003

Do better or you don't get in

NKU no longer "Remedial U"

By Karen Gutierrez
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Principal Kim Banta talks with students at Dixie Heights High School, which sends many of its graduates to Northern Kentucky University.
(Patrick Reddy photo)
HIGHLAND HEIGHTS - Every year, about half the freshman class at Northern Kentucky University is not completely ready for college. That's 950 students who must take at least one remedial course without credit toward a degree.

Within a year, about 45 percent of them drop out, records show.

It's a national problem. High-schoolers misjudge the difficulty of college-level work, studies show, and that has led to an epidemic of unpreparedness.

In 2000, about 35 percent of college freshmen nationwide spent their first year repeating high-school material, says a just-released report from the National Center for Education Statistics.

Better counseling and more rigorous course loads in high school are one proposed solution.

Now NKU is gearing up to try another: Tough love. Starting next year, it will begin turning away some students, and by 2005, it will likely require a minimum score on the ACT and college-prep work in high school.

That's a big switch for a university long considered one of the most open in the region. For years, Kentucky and Ohio students have counted on NKU as an inexpensive, four-year campus they could attend regardless of their preparation. Since 1984, its enrollment has doubled to 14,000 students.

Setting minimum standards "isn't fair to the less academic kid in school," says Josh Rogers, a senior at Dixie Heights High School in Edgewood, who cheerfully describes himself as "not exactly a genius."

"That's what I relied on my whole life: If I don't do good in this school, I can always go to NKU," Josh says.

Principals cringe when they hear such comments from students, which is often. At Dixie Heights, 72 graduates entered NKU in 2002, records show.

"When I look at a kid and say, 'You don't want to fail that class, that'll look bad on your transcript,' they say, 'It doesn't matter, I'm going to NKU,'" says Kim Banta, principal of Dixie.

She's all for admissions standards at the university, figuring they will "force kids to stop being lazy."

Principals also are reviewing their own requirements of students. At Boone County High School, for instance, the site-based council this week voted to make a fourth math course mandatory for graduation. As it stood before, students could avoid taking math after sophomore year, which was hurting them in college, Principal Peggy Brooks says.

Helping to motivate high-schoolers - and clearly communicating to them what's expected of college freshmen - is one of NKU's goals.

NKU also hopes to raise the cachet of its degree and compete with surrounding universities for the best students.

In addition, being upfront and realistic with those who are severely unprepared is "almost a moral issue," says NKU Vice Provost Paul Reichardt.

Remedial courses cost about $390 apiece and cover subjects students should have learned in high school. Of the students who need this help in every subject (math, English and reading), only about 30 percent are still enrolled after three years, NKU records show.

"To come to NKU, take on debt and then fail is really a sad state of affairs," Reichardt says.

It's also one that's on the rise nationwide. From 1995 to 2000, the percentage of college students doing remedial work increased from 28 percent to 35 percent at public, four-year universities, says the National Center for Education Statistics.

College is now marketed as the best path for almost everyone, including thousands of students who wouldn't have considered it before. These young people tend to arrive with academic weaknesses.

Next fall, NKU will likely decide how many remedial students it can effectively serve and then steer the rest toward Gateway Community & Technical College in Covington, with which it is closely working.

Since 2001, Gateway has offered two-year associate's degrees that are transferable to NKU. This opened the door for NKU to stop being everything to everybody.

A recent event at the university illustrates how inclusive it has been. About 10 students in a remedial course had won awards for essay writing, and they read aloud from their work in a special ceremony on Wednesday.

One student told about her drug-addicted father, another of her battle with depression. An older woman wrote about her teenage son's lifelong health problems, and a 23-year-old told of being a first-generation Cuban-American in Kentucky.

Gateway is probably a good alternative for some students, says Theresa Ramos, the Cuban-American. But at the same time, they may lose something by not attending NKU.

"Coming here helps you get focused on what you want to do, and you get to interact with so many people on different levels - people getting their master's, getting their bachelor's," Ramos says.

A transfer student from a community college in South Florida, Ramos is holding down a job while attending her second year of remedial classes at NKU. She has no intention of quitting.


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