Our coronavirus coverage is free for the first 24 hours. Find the latest information at Please consider subscribing or donating.

  1. Archive

Higher standards carry a price

It has become a given at Florida's community colleges: spending a great deal of time and money teaching high school skills to college freshmen.

The situation is no different at Pasco-Hernando Community College, where 57 percent of first-year students fail math, reading or English placement tests. And the percentage is expected to jump in the fall, when the college raises its passing scores for placement tests.

The higher standards, to be adopted by Florida's 28 community colleges, will require more college freshmen to take remedial "refresher" courses and cost the state $6-million a year in addition to the $50-million it is already spending.

The state Legislature's move to raise standards at community colleges but not at high schools is a perfect example of not taking the bull by its horns, said PHCC President Robert Judson. If students were forced to learn the skills in high school, the state would not have to spend millions a year on the refresher courses at community colleges, he said.

"I think raising the community college standards is important, but we also need to look at what kids are and are not learning in high school," Judson said.

Judson said the key to getting students better prepared for college is to eliminate some of their options in high school.

"By and large, students aren't choosing the courses they need to take. They delay and delay, and that delay ends up sending them to a community college not knowing math or science."

The vast majority, 70 percent, of PHCC students who fail placement tests fail the math sections. Although Hernando County just raised the grade-point average a student must have to graduate, Judson said, high school students should be forced to take two years of algebra and science because time has proved teenagers won't take the courses voluntarily.

"Kids take the path of least resistance," he said. "I would have, too, when I was in school. But back then, we were handed a schedule when we walked through the door and told what class we were taking, when and with which instructor."

High school curricula came close to getting tougher this spring when the Legislature passed a bill requiring all school districts to increase the graduation standard to a 2.0 grade-point average and require at least one college-prep algebra course. But Gov. Lawton Chiles vetoed the bill after an amendment allowing prayer in school was added at the last minute.

Until local school districts remove some curriculum options and require students to take more math and science, PHCC will not see a drop in the number of students failing placement tests, Judson said.

State Rep. Ralph Livingston, R-Fort Myers, a member of the State Higher Education Committee, which recommended raising community college standards, couldn't agree more.

"Local school boards have the ability to change their standards," he said. "And I believe the majority of them will on their own, even without state legislation."

But even the best high school education system will not eliminate the need for some remedial courses, Judson and state legislators agree.

A large portion of the money spent on college-prep courses for the 800,000 students entering Florida's community colleges goes to train non-traditional students such as adults and recent immigrants.

But that's the beauty of Florida's community college system, Judson says.

"We have an open-door policy," he said. "Anyone who wants to learn or advance can do it here. The mission of the community college is to be a post-secondary educational institution that democratizes post-secondary education."

The state should focus its energy on reducing the number of recent high school graduates who have to take remedial courses and accept that money always will have to be spent on non-traditional students, Judson said.

State legislators seem to concur.

"We know remedial education is never going to be totally eliminated," said Rep. Allen Trovillion, R-Orlando, another member of the Higher Education Committee. "Our community colleges are doing a great job, but they could do a lot better if students came to them better prepared."