Nearly 1 in 5 Freshmen Attending UW System Require Remedial Course Work to Catch Up

December 18, 2013

by Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

[Madison, Wisc…] The UW Board of Regents recently released data showing that nearly one out of every five freshmen on their campuses is not ready for college and requires remedial course work. Nearly 18 percent of the system’s first-year students needed to re-learn core concepts that should have been mastered before graduating from high school.

The Board of Regents report broke down the number of first-year students in each undergraduate class at campuses statewide. The authors determined the percentage of students at each school that needed remediation in either math or English in order to prepare themselves for college-level learning. The results suggest that many of the students that are attending UW universities and colleges are not academically ready for the rigors of higher learning.

UW-Parkside, where an astonishing two-thirds of all incoming freshmen needed help to catch up, held the ignominious honor of having the worst remediation rate in the state. UW-Madison had the best mark of all state schools with less than one percent of their students deemed unready for basic higher education classes.

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The chart above shows remediation rates across the state from the freshman classes of 2004, 2005, and 2006. While schools in Milwaukee, Green Bay, and Parkside have high rates, schools like UW-Platteville, UW-Superior, and UW-Whitewater all had significantly large populations of unprepared freshmen as well.

These remediation rates appear to have some connection to the academic strength of a university’s incoming students, but that relationship was unclear. The Board of Regents study included information on the average class ranking of every student in a UW campus’s freshman cohort. While strong performers like Madison and La Crosse could tie low remediation rates to better high school class rankings, other schools could not make the same connection.

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Platteville, River Falls, Superior, and Whitewater all had similar class rankings for their freshmen, but very different remediation rates. Nearly four times as many students needed remedial classes in Superior than they did in River Falls, despite Superior having students that generally fared better in high school. Milwaukee and Parkside had similarly lowly-rated high school students coming to their universities over the three years that this study examined, but Parkside’s remediation rate was nearly twice that of Milwaukee.
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This lack of a direct connection could suggest two things. Either schools within the UW-System are tagging students for remedial classwork on an inconsistent basis, or the high schools that send students to UW schools are producing inconsistent results and rankings that don’t measure up when their students matriculate to college.

The Board of Regents study shows that UW System students from the upper 40 percent of their graduating classes are struggling to acclimate to college learning. The majority of those students are coming from within Wisconsin to attend state universities. While the state may boast one of the best graduation rates in the nation, the accomplishment of graduating from high school loses its effectiveness when that diploma fails to prepare a student for his or her next steps in higher education.

The Board of Regents report shines an important spotlight, although depressing, on the state of Wisconsin’s college freshmen and their readiness to continue their education. Nearly one in every five first-year students at UW-System schools needs extra coursework to cover the math and English tenets that they had been expected to learn before graduating. Wisconsin high schools still have a long way to go before every graduate is ready to move forward to a UW campus. The real question for Wisconsin is, how much longer will we allow this education travesty to continue?