But that tide of remedial students has now swelled so large that the university’s six community colleges — like other two-year schools across the country — are having to rethink what and how they teach, even as they reel from steep cuts in state and local aid.

About three-quarters of the 17,500 freshmen at the community colleges this year have needed remedial instruction in reading, writing or math, and nearly a quarter of the freshmen have required such instruction in all three subjects. In the past five years, a subset of students deemed “triple low remedial” — with the most severe deficits in all three subjects — has doubled, to 1,000.

The reasons are familiar but were reinforced last month by startling new statistics from state education officials: fewer than half of all New York State students who graduated from high school in 2009 were prepared for college or careers, as measured by state Regents tests in English and math. In New York City, that number was 23 percent.

Many of those graduates end up at CUNY, one of the nation’s largest urban higher-education systems, which requires its community colleges to take every applicant with a high school diploma or equivalency degree.

To bring thousands of students up to speed, those colleges spent about $33 million last year on remediation — twice as much as they did 10 years ago. They are expanding an immersion program that funnels hundreds of students exclusively into remedial classes.

But there is concern that the effort is diverting attention from the colleges’ primary mission.

“It takes a lot of our time and energy and money to figure out what to do with all of these students who need remediation,” said Alexandra W. Logue, the university’s executive vice chancellor and provost. “We are doing some really good things, but it’s time that we’re not thinking about our other wonderful students who are very highly prepared. We need to focus on them, too.”

At LaGuardia Community College in Queens, where 40 percent of the math classes are remedial, faculty members like Jerry G. Ianni have been increasingly dividing their time between teaching those classes and teaching courses for academic credit, prompting worries that professors are becoming de facto high school teachers.

“Most students have serious challenges remembering the basic rules of arithmetic,” Dr. Ianni said of his remedial math class. “The course is really a refresher, but they aren’t ready for a refresher. They need to learn how to learn.”

On a recent afternoon, a half-dozen students in that class prepared for a test, called a Compass exam, that would allow those who passed to start studying college-level math. Without college math skills, students cannot graduate. Seventeen others in the class had not even qualified to take the test; they will have to repeat the course until they qualify or they give up, as history shows many have.

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