Last February, The National Center for Education reported that 50 percent of the 3 million students who begin college annually require some level of remediation. This trend costs students, parents, institutions, and taxpayers nearly $7 billion a year, while remedial students fail to earn a single college credit.
The high volume and costs of remediation have policymakers and education leaders scrambling to stop this financial hemorrhage. While reform in remedial education is inevitable, the unintended consequences of swooping changes can be harmful to students, institutions, and the economy at a time when the U.S. is struggling to fill the 21st century workforce with high-skilled workers.
Who are remediated students?
A report released today by the National Center on Education and the Economy states that many community college career programs demand little or no use of math, and high school students are taking math courses they will likely never use. In reading and writing, the group noted incoming college freshmen had simplistic and academically unchallenging skills. Finally, NCEE discovered that very little writing is required of community college freshmen, and when it is, there are low expectations for making a cogent argument and employing basic rules for writing, punctuation, and grammar. The report calls for the bar to be raised if students are to succeed in college, career, and life. Some of these same patterns exist for freshmen admitted to open admission four-year colleges.
Policymakers believe the solution to plugging up the remedial financial drain is to stop offering remedial classes in college, cut funding, or hold high schools accountable. Yet, these all-or-nothing solutions oversimplify who is entering remedial courses and how they got there. The spectrum of today's remedial students includes:
- Nontraditional, returning students who've been out of school for years and need to brush up on learning skills while pursuing a degree or certificate.
- Students with undiagnosed learning disabilities.
- Low-income, minority, and first-generation students.
- Misplaced students who were misidentified as needing remedial classes. Multiple studies indicate up to 20 to 30 percent of remedial students are misidentified and don't belong in developmental classes.
- Students who failed to master high school material due to a lack of focus, emotional/social maturity, home support, poor instruction, or a combination of these factors.
As funding plummets, remedial students still remain, as does the need to fill many of the 3.9 million U.S. job openings that require a college degree. Realizing remediation will be anything but a quick fix, many people and organizations are offering cost-saving strategies.
What does remedial reform look like?
Mike Petrilli, executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, recently argued that Pell grant funding -- a need-based grant that helps qualifying students afford college -- should not be available for students who require remedial education. Instead, he believes this $40 billion annual federal aid should only be awarded to students who take credit-bearing classes. The argument has merit. Statistically, the 35 percent of students who require remediation in four-year institutions complete a degree within six years, and worse, less than 10 percent of students enrolled in one or more developmental classes in community colleges graduate within three years.
Petrilli's solution raises many questions. Is limiting college access to low-income students really a solution to remediation? Will high schools have the bandwidth to take accountability for the underprepared students who are denied grant-funding because they don't possess basic skills? Are college-ready students more deserving of federal dollars than those who are underprepared for college?
Already, a recent change to Pell grants is negatively impacting developmental students. In the past, students were allowed to receive funding for up to 18 semesters. Now, they are limited to 12 semesters. For many students who work while going to school or are required to take several semesters of remedial education, this reduction in aid is a huge barrier to degree attainment.
Institutions, as well as people like Petrilli, are evaluating their best response to the remediation crisis. For example, in Ohio, only 25 percent of residents hold a college degree. The state hopes to improve the number of grads by adopting a new formula that aligns the amount of funding four-year colleges receive with the amount of graduates they produce. The community colleges are also seeing a shift to performance-based funding but not at as high a rate as four-year colleges. Like Ohio, more states than not have transitioned, are transitioning, or are discussing transitioning away from enrollment-based funding to performance-based funding.
Another solution for some states is to simply get rid of remedial funding. In addition to Ohio's performance-based funding, the state government will start phasing out funding for remedial classes in the 2014-15 school year and completely end funding by 2020. In Connecticut, a bill attempted to cut remedial courses and put those students who would have been placed in a remedial courses in college-level, credit-earning courses. A bill was ultimately signed into law which allowed students to take one remedial course.
There are a number of different strategies being proposed by states and colleges to cut costs in remedial education. Until the pipeline to college improves, however, the need for remediation will remain. Without careful analysis of tradeoffs, cutting funding, courses, and opportunity is not reform: it is giving up and hoping someone else will pick up the slack. We need a holistic solution for the short and long term. As the NCEE stated in their report this morning:
"The logical conclusion might be for community colleges to raise their expectations and for high schools to step up the rigor... but that would not help today's large proportion of high school graduates who do not meet the criteria to enroll in credit-bearing college courses."
What are solutions which impact pipeline preparation before college?
Remediation may never be completely eradicated, but improvement can be made in the K-12 to college pipeline to better prepare students for college from the start. The new Common Core, well taught, will align elementary, middle, and high school reading, writing, math, and critical thinking expectations. Also, strongly aligning K-12 education needs with the demands of college will improve matriculation. High school completion should be measured by college and career readiness, not just a diploma. Better diagnostics need to be developed to accurately place students in college courses and avoid misplacement in remedial courses. Perhaps we need better diagnostics out of elementary and middle school where we can be more proactive in showing up deficits. We need to better figure out who is mature enough out of high school to go to college, and who needs to take a year or two to grow into a wise enough person to make the college investment pay off. None of us can afford for college to be the 13th year of high school.
Education needs to expand outside school walls. Give students who are most at-risk for remedial education afterschool and summer learning opportunities with tutors, mentors, and role models in the community where they can apply what they are learning. Encourage high school students to develop self-awareness and the vision to successfully transition into higher education. The older the student, the harder it is to change their habits. Let's work to reduce the need for the $7 billion spent on remedial education and push the savings down the pipeline to improve early childhood education, maintain consistency, foster rigor, ignite curiosity, and prepare students for academic, emotional, and social success.
Let's continue to develop our ideas so no student on the continuum will be left out as we make necessary improvements. Instead of cutting billions, we have the opportunity to make billions by fueling our economy with purposeful, high-achieving students who go on to secure gainful employment or start their own successful businesses out of high school, apprentice programs, or college. For too many students, remediation is not the starting line they think it is, but rather, a holding pattern or an off-ramp. It's time to invest in our students at every level, and make the entrance to college the launchpad to success in college, career, and life.