Each morning, Bearden High School seniors ride a bus to nearby Southern Arkansas University Technical College in Camden to take college courses with college students. The pilot program — in which students can complete up to 12 hours of their basics, take remedial courses, or develop career skills such as auto mechanics and welding — may hold some clues for helping Arkansas increase its percentage of adults with a college degree. Currently we're tied with Mississippi at second to last with less than 20 percent of degreed adults. West Virginia trails us both.

Each morning, Bearden High School seniors ride a bus to nearby Southern Arkansas University Technical College in Camden to take college courses with college students. The pilot program — in which students can complete up to 12 hours of their basics, take remedial courses, or develop career skills such as auto mechanics and welding — may hold some clues for helping Arkansas increase its percentage of adults with a college degree. Currently we’re tied with Mississippi at second to last with less than 20 percent of degreed adults. West Virginia trails us both.

Lots of people, of course, do well in life without going to college, but in this economy it’s an advantage. If students go to college, they need to finish, and the best way to help them finish is to help them do it quickly. That’s because the longer a student’s education takes, the less likely he or she is to graduate. As Arkansas Department of Higher Education associate director Cynthia Moten told me, “Life happens.”

Among the state’s worst college-extenders are the remedial courses students are required to take when they score below a 19 on the ACT in English, reading or math. Half of all freshmen in the fall of 2011 required some form of remediation, costing the state $52 million in 2010-11.

It also potentially cost the state a lot of college graduates. Only 20 percent of students who took a remedial class in 2005 had graduated college six years later — compared to more than 50 percent who did not take a remedial course. That meant taxpayers were pouring money into a system that fails to produce a graduate 80 percent of the time.

Granted, many students who required a remedial course entered college with academic shortcomings that made it harder for them to graduate from the start. Many, however, are perfectly capable of excelling once those shortcomings are addressed. Instead, they started their careers taking — and paying for — classes that didn’t result in any college credit.

That would be discouraging.

According to Moten and ADHE Interim Director Shane Broadway, Arkansas is trying several approaches to help students finish what they start, including changing the way college students are remediated. One idea being considered would allow students to take multi-week modules in areas where they are deficient rather than a semester-long course. Another would alter the college algebra course for students who are not entering a math-related field, because that’s the class that seems to trip up a lot of students. In fact, some students must take two remedial courses before they even get to college algebra, meaning they will have taken — and paid for — half a semester of courses they won’t use for the rest of their lives. Probably the most important change would occur in high school rather than college. In coming years, the state will try to identify student deficiencies when students are younger so they don’t have to be remediated at all.

And that brings us back to Bearden, where students can take remedial courses while still in high school or, if they don’t need them, get a head start on their basics.

There are other ways for high school students to earn college credit in Arkansas, including taking Advanced Placement courses and having classes taught on their high school campus. But the district’s superintendent, Danny Rozenberg, thought students would benefit from experiencing college courses in a college atmosphere so they would be more prepared to go to college the next year.

Students don’t pay anything for the opportunity. Instead, the district pays all costs using mostly federal funds. The total cost for the entire senior class to participate is about $60,000 a year, and that includes transportation.

The idea is showing some promise. Every Bearden student who took college credit or remedial courses in the fall of 2011 passed them. Of the 38 members of last year’s senior class who participated in the program, 16 are enrolled at SAU Tech, while others are enrolled elsewhere. Will they finish? It’s too soon to tell. Life happens, after all, but it helps to get a head start.

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Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His blog — Independent Arkansas — is linked at Arkansasnews.com. His e-mail address is brawnersteve@mac.com.