States Reform College Remedial Education
After Jessica Grubb transferred from Austin Community College to Texas State University, she put off taking math, a requirement for graduation. She had failed or dropped out of remedial-level math classes at Austin several times.
The 23-year-old special education major then took an intensive remedial math program at Texas State, known as Fundamentals of Conceptual Understanding & Success, and not only conquered the college math course but learned vital study skills that helped propel her to the dean’s list.
“I think if they hadn’t really immersed me in math…. I don’t think that I would still be in college,” said Grubb, who now tutors other students in math.
Success stories like this are rare in college remedial education, also known as developmental education, in which struggling students are required to take non-credit classes in basics like math, reading and writing to prepare for college-level courses.
About 60 percent of community college students enroll in at least one developmental education course, according to the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College. At four-year colleges, about 20 percent of freshman students enroll in remedial classes, according to Complete College America, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., which has led efforts to reform remedial education.
One study estimated the annual cost of college-level remedial help to students, colleges and taxpayers at close to $7 billion.
Now, a growing number of policymakers are raising questions about whether existing programs work and who is responsible for making sure students are ready for college-level work.
Research shows many college students who take developmental education classes, usually required when they score low on placement exams, fail to graduate. Only 28 percent of two-year college students who took at least one developmental course earned a degree or certificate within 8.5 years, compared to 43 percent of non-remedial students, according to one study. The study concluded the gap in graduation rates reflected differences in learning skills carried over from high school, rather than the impact of remedial classes themselves.
Other research discovered the placement exam scores that send students to remedial classes are poor predictors of students’ success in college-level classes and that high school transcripts, for example, are a better measure.
Several states have jumped into the debate. Some are calling on high schools to step up. Indiana lawmakers, for example, approved a bill this spring directing high schools to identify students who may need remedial classes in college and help them before they leave high school.
Some states are demanding that colleges provide extra help to students as they take regular classes for credit. Advocates argue such an approach will help more students finish college by shortening the path to graduation.