More than 2 million U.S. college students this fall will be spending a good bit of their time reviewing what they were supposed to learn in high school or even earlier. They are taking “remedial” education courses.
A recent study issued by ACT Inc., a testing organization measuring “college readiness,” found that less than one-third of graduating high-school seniors met benchmark standards for science, and a majority failed to meet them for math. Even in English and reading, a large minority of students were below a level that would mostly earn a grade of C or better in college- level work.
The results are depressing. In science, most students don't come close (within three points) of meeting the ACT benchmark standards. Yes, it is often pointed out, some population groups are less prepared than others: Only 5 percent of black students meet all four ACT criteria. But for white students, for every high-school graduate who meets the benchmarks, there are two who don't. The student at least partially unprepared for college is the rule, not the exception.
To deal with the dismal preparation of many high-school students, colleges expand “remedial” courses in subjects such as math and English. The problem is that these courses do a bad job of correcting these deficiencies, even if you don't believe that test scores are the most reliable way to determine college readiness.
Complete College America, a group promoting better college academic success rates, concluded in a recent study that “remediation is a broken system.”
It is a big broken system. Most students entering community colleges are enrolled in at least one remedial course, while at four-year schools about a fifth of all students are. The study estimates that fewer than 10 percent of those entering remedial courses at community (two-year) colleges graduate within three years, and almost 65 percent of those at four-year institutions have no degree within six years (compared with about 44 percent for students not taking remedial courses). At a typical university, the people who teach the remedial courses most likely aren't star professors known for their ability to make complex concepts clear; more often they're lowly paid adjunct instructors or graduate students.
What to do? We know that high-school education in the United States is subpar by international standards, and that several decades of reform efforts have had only modest effects. Public education needs more competition and choice, and barriers to change — such as outmoded teaching seniority rules and nonmerit compensation structures — need to be removed. Coordination between those who determine high-school curriculums and college faculty who know what students need to be well-prepared is often nonexistent.
The challenge is to force colleges to face their own responsibility. Administrators will note that remedial college classes have existed for as long as there has been higher education in the U.S. But they should be ashamed of their role in protecting these failed programs for decades. One remedial education professor called it “a silent contract of fraud.”
Complete College America favors ditching most remedial courses and putting subpar students into regular classes — but with “just in time” tutoring that helps students master the relatively advanced materials taught in college survey courses. This approach may not work, but testing its effectiveness is worthwhile.
The bigger problem is that colleges admit students unlikely to succeed in the first place. Taking in subpar students leads to a “dumbing-down” of the curriculum for everyone. That may be why studies (such as “Academically Adrift” by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa) found little evidence that students were learning a whole lot or mastering critical-thinking skills in their college years.
U.S. colleges should not take hundreds of thousands of ill- prepared students and put them through ineffective remedial- education programs only to see them fail to graduate while running up significant college-loan debt. Instead, they should be encouraged — through the tightening of federal loan policies and other accountability incentives — to become more selective in their admission practices and reject students who show on tests, such as the ACT readiness exams, that they are not ready for college work.
Many of these academically marginal students might excel in non-college-degree vocational programs that teach skills in relatively high-demand jobs, which pay reasonably well. In today's economy, why is a bachelor's degree in marketing more valuable than training in high-tech manufacturing?
If the desire to give everyone a shot at the American dream trumps all of these arguments, however, at least consider outsourcing remedial teaching. There are for-profit companies that have provided supplemental learning to high-school students for years. Tie part of their compensation to college-performance improvements shown by the students in their programs.
Colleges aren't geared to teaching secondary education to marginal students. This work should be handled by specialists with some track record. The young people stuck in this dysfunctional system deserve better than what they are getting.
Vedder directs the Center for College Affordability and Productivity and teaches economics at Ohio University.