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Clock is ticking for remedial students

In a closely watched move, a state university system pushes out those who don't master the basics

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When remedial writing instructor Adrienne Peek pauses to think about the hundreds of California State University (CSU) students she has labored to help write at a college level, one stands out below the rest.

"When I met him, he had about 100 course units [90 is standard for seniors] but was not even close to graduating," she says. "He was taking remedial English for the fifth time. At the end of the semester, he asked me to help him write a letter to the financial aid office."

Students as helpless as he was with writing might still be at the Fresno campus - except for the state's new get-tough policy on remedial education, Ms. Peek says. Soon after he was pushed out, the university system began in 1999-2000 to "disenroll" - give the boot to - students who don't pass remedial writing or math within one academic year.

In January, for the second year in a row, CSU announced that it expelled 2,277 students across its 22 campuses last spring, about 7 percent of its freshman class. That was a slight increase from the year before. Others left voluntarily. And CSU will kick out another bunch this spring.

On the softer side, the CSU system is also now spending $9 million a year to work closely with 172 high schools to align their standards with university expectations.

It's a big, controversial experiment. With 388,000 students, CSU is the nation's largest university system, and its get-tough policy is being closely watched.

Many support the measures, while others argue that they will unfairly impact minorities and immigrants. Still, with state higher-education budgets tight and getting tighter, many public institutions dearly want to slash the costs of remedial education.

"What's happening in ... California portends what will happen in the rest of country," says Yolanda Moses, president of the American Association for Higher Education, a lobby group in Washington.

Many states, she says, are looking for a fix for this hot-button issue. Cries of "double billing" - paying a second time to teach students what they should have learned in high school - echo in legislative chambers. Others decry the dumbing down of American higher education. Then there's cost: $1 billion to $2 billion annually - a small percentage of what the nation's colleges and universities spend overall, but enough to attract attention.

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