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Remedial Education: The Cost Of Catching Up

Math teacher Thora Broyles, right, counts on her fingers in an effort to help student Jamal Mabry in a remedial math class Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2012, at Missouri State University-West Plains in West Plains, Mo.

CREDIT: AP/Jeff Roberson.

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Across the country, millions of students enroll in college every year only to learn that they need to take classes that will not count toward their degrees because they cover material that they should have learned in high school. According to the authors’ analysis for this report, these remedial courses cost students and their families serious money—about $1.3 billion across the 50 states and the District of Columbia every year. What is more, students who take these classes are less likely to graduate. Simply put, remedial education—or developmental education as it is also known—is a systemic black hole from which students are unlikely to emerge.

“I felt the remedial courses were a waste of time. … If I was taught and learned how to think more critically and pushed to achieve more or reach higher standards in high school, I think I would be doing much better in college, and it would be easier.” — Courtney, a first generation college student from Texas. Courtney dropped out of college but had reenrolled by the time of the interview for this report.

After defining remedial education, the authors briefly review the typical methods that institutions employ to identify students in need of remediation and the resulting national demographics of remediated students. Then, the report touches on national rates of progress through remedial education for major racial or ethnic and socio- economic student groups before focusing on how much money students spend on these courses that do not count toward a degree. While there are certainly reforms to the design of remedial education in higher education institutions that could improve student retention and completion, the recommendations that conclude this report focus on other ways for the K-12 and higher education systems to eliminate the need for remedial education for recent high school graduates.

The national rates of remediation are a significant problem. According to college enrollment statistics, many students are underprepared for college-level work. In the United States, research shows that anywhere from 40 percent to 60 percent of first-year college students require remediation in English, math, or both. Remedial classes increase students’ time to degree attainment and decrease their likelihood of completion. While rates vary depending on the source, on-time completion rates of students who take remedial classes are consistently less than 10 percent.

Moreover, the problem is worse for low-income students and students of color, whose rates of remedial education enrollment are higher than for their white and higher income peers. According to a recent study, 56 percent of African American students and 45 percent of Latino students enroll in remedial courses nationwide, compared with 35 percent of white students.

In addition to remedial education’s impact on students’ academic success, its financial costs are significant and quantifiable. The total figure is staggering: According to the authors’ analysis, students paid approximately $1.3 billion for remediation in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. A detailed description of how the authors calculated these costs is included in the Methodology.

While there may always be a need for remedial education, especially for those students returning to school after years in the workforce, the need for remedial education for recent high school graduates can be eliminated by ensuring that high schools do a better job preparing students for college and careers. The failure to do so is costing students and the country in so many ways.

The good news is that there is a way forward. By advocating for implementing higher academic standards such as the Common Core State Standards, students know that by meeting them, they will not need remediation in college. Raising standards is only one strategy to eliminate the need for remediation for recent high school graduates. This report touches on additional efforts that the K-12 and higher education systems and the federal government can undertake to ease the burden of remedial education on students. The higher education and K-12 systems together can increase academic continuity between high school and college by aligning the requirements for both and being transparent with students about what knowledge, skills, and coursework are needed to succeed in higher education. These two systems should also collaborate to reform remedial education by creating consensus around a definition of remedial education, placement practices, and structures for remedial education in public higher education institutions. The federal government can increase accountability for remedial education by tying the receipt of federal student aid dollars to the reporting of be er data on remedial programs, including enrollment, placement, progress, and completion rates.

This report originally appeared on the website of our parent organization, the Center for American Progress. To read the report there, visit americanprogress.org.

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