As College Remediation Increases, Experts Question Its Value

Posted By Derek Johnson on January 13, 2016 at 9:02 am
As College Remediation Increases, Experts Question Its Value

College is supposed to represent the next step in a student’s educational development. The assigned materials and readings are more advanced, concepts are higher-level and the workload is usually a step above what you encounter in high school.

At least, that’s how it used to be. Over the past 25 years, an increasing proportion of an average college student’s freshman and sophomore experience is spent repeating the same courses they took as juniors and seniors in high school.

In theory, these remedial courses are designed to ensure every incoming student brings a similar baseline of foundational knowledge in subjects like English and math before encountering their first real college-level (or “gateway”) courses. Historically, this requirement has typically translated to a class or two in a student’s first semester before moving on to the core curriculum and their chosen major. In practice, it is not at all uncommon today for many students to spend the majority of their freshman and sophomore years in remediation.

Here’s the kicker: research has continually shown that these courses do little to encourage or prepare students for the higher education world. In fact, in some respects, college remediation has been proven to actually harm their ability to earn a degree, particularly among minority students and those in community college. On top of that, many remedial classes are both mandatory and expensive, despite the fact that the credits do not count towards a student’s degree.

Lower rates of graduation, no improvements in college skills

According to Complete College America, a non-profit dedicated to improving the college graduation rate, just one-third of college students placed into remedial courses at four-year universities go on to graduate, while just 10 percent of students enrolled in remedial courses at community colleges do the same.

Bruce Vandal, senior vice president at Complete College America, said research shows the more time students spend in remediation, the more discouraged and pessimistic they become about their ability to succeed at the college level.

“The way we’ve designed remedial education as a set of prerequisite courses, we’re adding time and cost to [students’] college education,” said Vandal. “By definition – especially when talking about low-income and minority students – when you create additional obligations, their likelihood of success declines.”

These obligations are affecting more students than ever before. Over the past three decades, the amount of federal student aid being spent on these courses has ballooned, with $4.6 billion Pell Grant dollars going to students taking at least one remedial course in 2011, compared to $960 million in 1990.  A report last year by the Wall Street Journal found that “college students are increasingly spending federal financial aid and taking on debt for high school-level courses that don’t count toward a degree, despite mounting evidence the courses are ineffective and may contribute to higher dropout rates.”


This increase might make sense if there was any corresponding data to show that remedial courses were helping students finish college sooner or giving them the tools to succeed in higher-level classes. Unfortunately, at the same time the American college system is forcing more and more students into remediation, their critical thinking and analysis skills have deteriorated.

In their book “Academically Adrift” college professors Richard Arum and Josipa Roska looked at transcript data from 25 colleges to see how students performed on the College Learning Assessment over time. The assessment is considered a credible benchmark for measuring a student’s growth in critical thinking and written communication skills. The results released in 2011 found that 45 percent of college students demonstrated no significant improvement in these skills over the first two years of college, the key years when most remediation takes place.

Complete College America’s report on remediation found that more than half of community college students and one out of every five students at four-year universities start off in remediation. The numbers are even worse for minorities and those from low-income backgrounds. Black and Hispanic students are far more likely to be placed in remediation at the start of their college career and tend to graduate slower or drop out in much higher numbers than minority students who move straight to college-level courses.

Enroll students in college-level classes with tutoring instead

Perhaps students placed in remediation are less motivated, less engaged or even less intelligent than their peers?  Not so, according to Vandal, who pointed to studies that suggest a large percentage of the students we place in remediation would do just fine in college level courses.

Vandal’s organization promotes a “co-requisite” model that places students in need of remediation into regular college courses, combined with mandatory tutoring or extra-curricular support outside of the classroom. He said a handful of states are implementing this model and finding that students tend to drop out less, complete their credits faster and graduate at much higher rates than those who are separated from their peers and placed in traditional remediation.

“I don’t think there is anybody who would have any evidence or say in any manner that the status quo is acceptable,” said Vandal. “I think there are different people with different notions of what the solution should be and how many students should be served in those solutions.

In 2012, Vandal’s organization, along with The Charles A. Dana Center, The Education Commission and Jobs for the Future released a joint statement laying out seven guiding principles for reforming remedial education in America. Those principles include using multiple measures to determine whether a student needs remediation, making placement in college-level courses the default option for students typically placed in remediation, and introducing co-requisite academic support like tutoring, mentoring or additional class periods mandatory for students who would otherwise be placed in remedial classes.

Derek Johnson
Derek Johnson is a writer, journalist and editor based out of Virginia. He received a Master’s degree in Public Policy at George Mason University and a bachelor’s degree in Communication from Hofstra University.

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