STORRS, Conn. — Mark Merliss took college-prep courses at an outstanding urban high school, in a state admired for its top-notch public schools. He was accepted at four colleges including his first choice, the University of Connecticut, where classmates come from elite private schools.
But when the lanky 18-year-old from Meriden arrived on campus last fall, he felt shaky. His high school senior year English was heavy doses of reading but little writing, he said. He still struggled getting his ideas down. "I'll sit for a half-hour thinking of a word. . . . I knew what I wanted to say, but I didn't know how to say it."
Eager to succeed--Merliss plans a career in golf course management--he was relieved to find English 104, "Basic Writing."
It is remedial, though that word does not appear in the catalog. Like its companion, Math 101, English 104 is for undergraduates smart enough but not quite ready for the University of Connecticut.
"I looked at college like, 'Wow!' This is a big place," Merliss said, brown eyes shining, his 6 feet, 2 inches sprawled amid the cramped bunk bed, books and electronic gear crowding his dorm room. "I didn't want to be lost."
Students like Mark Merliss were on the mind of new U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige in his second week on the job. In a speech to leaders of private colleges, the former Houston schools superintendent assailed America's public schools for sending students to college unprepared.
Noting that nearly a third of college freshmen need remedial work, Paige said, "College students should be taking college courses, not remedial classes."
Debate has swirled in recent years around the issue of remedial college courses. This may intensify with the Bush administration's stated intention of improving the nation's public schools.
It is already a quandary for college administrators and policymakers, as the children of baby boomers swell enrollment, as the necessity of a college degree heightens, as colleges accept more people of all ages who are able but not fully prepared.
The term "remedial" carries a stigma, so some schools use terms like "developmental" or "compensatory," if they name the classes at all.
And students admitted to the most competitive schools may need extra prepping when they arrive.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology offers a voluntary physics course, 801-L, for new students wishing to boost their math fluency to keep up with quick calculations in lectures.
At MIT's neighbor in Cambridge, Mass., all Harvard College freshmen take a writing course, Expository 20. For those not completely ready, there is Expos 10, a voluntary, introductory version.
"It is in no way remedial," said Nancy Sommers, director of Harvard's writing program. Every year, Expos 10 is taken by about 100 of the incoming 1,650 freshmen, the enrollment determined by a writing test everyone takes the first week.
"You're expected to hit the ground running here," Sommers said. "Some students come from areas where they just haven't had opportunities to write as much."
Not everyone thinks remedial courses signify a problem.
"It's unreasonable to think everybody is college-ready just because they finished high school," said Hunter Boylan, head of the National Center for Developmental Education in Boone, N.C.
"I'm not one to blame the public schools," said Boylan, also a professor of higher education at Appalachian State University. "We take in tens of millions of children every year with a huge diversity in talents and backgrounds, and schools are expected to kick them out 12 years later, college-ready."
Students like Mark Merliss constitute a sizable minority. A federal survey in fall 1995, the latest available, found that 29% of first-time college freshmen enrolled in remedial courses.
While the largest percentage of remedial students--41%--were at two-year schools, 22% of freshmen at four-year public institutions and 13% at private four-year colleges required such academic grooming, the survey found. Math is the single biggest area of poor college preparation, followed by composition and reading.
The survey also found that about three-fourths of remedial students successfully finished those courses, most as freshmen.
A new survey will get underway this fall, with results due early next year.
Colleges differ in the readiness they require and how they gauge it.
UConn requires English 104 for students who score below 431 on the verbal portion of the SAT admission exam. It is optional for those who score 431-540. (Merliss said he scored around 500.)
As taught this semester by instructor Will Eggers, the basic writing course is about the same as the standard composition course. Students analyze literature and learn to hone their views in writing.
Incoming UConn freshmen also take a "Q" test. It measures readiness for courses demanding quantitative skill, such as chemistry or statistics. Those who fail must take Math 101, intermediate algebra.