Catherine Tibbs' English class on the University of Southern Mississippi Gulf Park campus is about evenly split between fresh high school graduates and non-traditional students.
They're all in college but they all need a little extra help before taking a college-level English course.
Neither of those things -- the demographics of the class or the lack of college readiness -- is unusual.
The term "remedial" has fallen out of favor but data provided by higher education officials shows large num
bers of students are entering college without the skills needed to succeed in college-level English or math courses -- and by extension most other classes.
At Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, 26.2 percent of the student population in the fall semester of 2014 were taking at least one developmental education course. Of the 2,244 students that graduated in 2015, 32.6 percent had at one time been classified as a developmental student.
At the University of Southern Mississippi, about one-third of first-year, first-time students are placed into Expanded Composition, a class that stretches the traditional English 101 course over two semesters. About half of those students are required to take a supplemental workshop, like the one Tibbs teaches, mandated by Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning policy for students who score lower than 16 on the English portion of their ACTs.
Those numbers mirror the national trend. Nationwide, about one-third of students are not fully prepared for college.
Educators cautioned that the numbers shouldn't be seen as a direct reflection of Mississippi high schools or students. Significant portions of most remedial classes are made up of students returning to school after years of work or military service and who simply need a refresher. Students fresh out of high school may need to develop just a few skills before proceeding to an otherwise successful college career.
Data from both schools shows students who complete the remedial programs go on to do as well or better than their peers in traditional classes.
But officials with the Mississippi Department of Education acknowledged that college readiness is a concern. While colleges and universities have made recent improvements to their remediation programs, the Department of Education is piloting a program aimed at keeping students out of costly and time-consuming remediation all together.
In the last year, MGCCC has consolidated its developmental education program.
"We've streamlined the process to help those individuals go through the program faster so they can complete their programs of study in a better time frame," said Jason Pugh, vice president of teaching and learning.
There are now two English and two math classes, along with several supplemental labs for students who need extra help and a class focused on study skills.
Admission into the developmental learning department is based on ACT scores. If a student hasn't taken the ACT then a test administered by the college determines placement. School officials also meet with students.
If a student has been placed in the program, they can't opt out.
"If they don't have the background, they won't succeed in higher level courses," said Chris DeDual, the chair of the developmental studies department. "To be able to understand anything, you have to decipher what you're reading."
Ciara Clark, 19, credited the program with what she called a total turnaround -- from almost getting kicked out of high school to making straight As and Bs in college. "It was a total change, a different mindset than high school," Clark said. "People told me I wasn't going to make it. I made it."
Stacy Witt, 35, was also in the developmental studies department after starting college for the first time after 16 years in the workforce. "It was difficult, overwhelming, new, exciting," she said.
She said the classes were beneficial. And last week she was accepted into the Phi Beta Kappa honors society.
"I didn't feel any less smart for taking it. I took it more or less to refresh," she said. "It's something I chose to do because it helped me soar further up. It helped me transition in each class with a better understanding."
The University of Southern Mississippi fully implemented a new developmental English program in 2012 after several years of a pilot effort -- though officials don't like to call it remedial.
Students who score a 19 or below on their ACTs take a class that is essentially the standard English 101 class but extended to two semesters. It gives students a chance to get caught up and, unlike many developmental programs, awards college credit.
IHL policy also mandates students with ACT scores below 16 take a developmental class, so a separate workshop, English 99E, acts as a supplement for those students.
"It's about 'let's see where you are and what we need to do to get you where you need to be,'" Tibbs said. In her class on Wednesday, the students watched, read and discussed poetry. They also critiqued profile essays written by others in the class and worked on their own, in preparation for a longer profile assignment.
"All of our data shows that these students are more likely to complete the full sequence and often-times these students score higher in the 101 class than their peers and do better in the English 102 class," said Joyce Inman, the director of composition. "Overall, we're doing a good job of keeping students in school, which is part of the goal. Since the other goal is helping them do well in the future we're doing a good job as well."
High school improvements
Despite the success of remedial programs on the Coast, officials said the ideal is for students to be ready for college when they enter college -- at least those students matriculating straight from high school.
Remedial classes cost additional money. Some don't award any credits. They take time to complete.
At a time when the cost of college has become an impediment for many students and in an area of the state where so many students are working and raising families while attending college, all those things can make the already difficult task of graduating college even more onerous.
Strong American Schools, a education-focused nonprofit group, estimated the cost of remediation nationwide at $2.3 billion a year. A U.S. Department of Education study found that 58 percent of students who don't require remediation go on to achieve a bachelor's degree, compared to 17 percent of students in remedial reading and 27 percent of those in remedial math.
That cost and graduation rate has educators and policy-makers across the country scrambling for solutions.
In Mississippi, the recently implemented Career and College Readiness standards have increased the rigor of high school, said Jean Massey, the executive director of MDE's office of secondary education, though the standards other name, Common Core, has been controversial in Mississippi.
"We're working with schools and officials to look at the course sequence kids take," Massey said. "If we can get them to take the right sequence of courses, they will be prepared and ready to go to college."
Officials also piloted a new program last year and will launch this year.
Students who score between a 15 and 18 on the ACTs they take their junior year can take either a specialized math or English course. If they score at least 80 percent, they can take traditional courses at IHL schools, Massey said. The classes will prepare students for college. They are also free of cost.
"If you look at the stats, every time a student enrolls in a developmental class, the chances of them finishing college on time drop and some may not finish at all," Massey said. "It's about the ability to complete college and do it on time and about not spending money for courses that do not count toward graduation."