CASPER, Wyo -- Ariane Baca-Johnson graduated high school not knowing how to do long division by hand.
She used her fingers for simple math and memorized which buttons to punch to solve equations on her calculator.
Even without grasping basic concepts, she said, she made B's and C's in high school math.
Then she started at Casper College, where, despite her 3.5 grade point average, Baca-Johnson's low ACT scores landed her in remedial math and English courses. She is paying for the classes, but they don't count toward her degree.
Like Baca-Johnson, more than half of first-time students enrolled in community college in Wyoming are stumped by college-level math or English.
At 51 percent, Wyoming's rate of remediation among students attending two-year colleges is slightly lower than the current national average of 51.7 percent.
A state study tracking students from 2009 to 2012 showed that three years after entering a Wyoming community college, however, fewer than half of remedial students passed the college-level equivalent needed to earn a degree.
That statistic is concerning to Jim Rose, executive director of the Wyoming Community College Commission. Lengthy remediation puts a strain on state budgets and can discourage students from finishing college, he said.
"A student is going to say, 'Wait a minute, I’ve got to pay for these remedial classes before I can ever take the college courses,'" Rose said. "That could cause some students to ponder the whole decision. We as a country can’t afford that."
About 80 percent of community college costs are covered by the state; 20 percent is paid for by student tuition, Rose said.
The more remedial classes Wyoming's seven community colleges must offer, the higher the cost of running them becomes.
A Colorado report in 2012 estimated that the Centennial State fronted $19.1 million for remedial costs and that students paid $39.4 million extra for remedial courses.
No similar count has been conducted recently for Wyoming, Rose said.
According to Complete College America, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., students and states nationwide spent about $3 billion on remedial education last year.
More than a test
Some Wyoming community colleges are moving away from using a placement test, like the ACT, as the only measure for whether a student needs remedial education.
This fall, for instance, Casper College will try out a new system to admit students into college-level math classes based on grades in addition to test scores. The college is also lowering the ACT score required to enter college-level English classes from 21 to 18.
Tim Wright, vice president for academic affairs at the college, said it's an effort to be more efficient in bringing less-skilled students up to speed.
"We’re trying some innovative things," Wright said. "We are making a pretty good effort to be as efficient in developmental (education) as we can."
Wright expects the changes will add two new sections of introductory math and will increase the number of students taking introductory English by about 20 percent this fall.
For Baca-Johnson, the Casper College sophomore, remedial classes were "stepping stones" to the college-level content she wasn't ready for.
"I didn't want to be in anything higher," she said. "I wasn't ready."
Her math teachers sat with her on Saturdays until she understood the concept of a fraction. They drilled her until she caught on to the basics.
For the most part, Baca-Johnson, who is studying social work, is grateful for the extra time she spent gaining an understanding of the foundations she spent most of her childhood lacking.
"But there are times when I'm like, 'Man, I have a calculator,'" Baca-Johnson said. "I can just type it in."
As a teenager, Lucy Zepeda walked away from high school before graduation to take a job in telemarketing.
By age 30, Zepeda had six children and figured she would need a degree to make a life for her family.
Today, Zepeda, 33, is entering her third year at Casper College, where she is studying addictions and clinical therapy.
She spent more than a decade away from school, and her placement test scores showed that she needed several high school-level classes before she could place into a college-level math or English course.
"It was like, 'I have to take all these classes just to get into the classes to work toward my degree?'" Zepeda said. "But then, without them, I wouldn't be graduating."
Zepeda is finished with her remedial classes now. She hopes to finish her associate degree in the spring. It would have been earlier, she said, but she spread out her courses to spend time with her family.