Remedial College Classes Are Costing Students Billions

A lack of high-quality college-prep coursework in high schools means students are shelling out $1.5 billion more per year.

(Photo: Bruce Ayres/Getty Images)

Apr 9, 2016· 3 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

Add another log to the raging fire that is the student debt crisis: One in four incoming college freshmen is required to take remedial classes at full expense and without credit toward graduation, a requirement that tacks on roughly $1.5 billion to tuition costs nationwide, according to a new report.

Unlike other issues in higher education, however, the problem has swept into the middle class along with poor and minority college students, according to the report Out of Pocket: The High Cost of Inadequate High Schools and High School Student Achievement on College Affordability.

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Forty-five percent of students who were required to take remedial classwork came from well-off families, the report’s authors found, and those students entered college with a less-than-rigorous high-school education.

“The problem is much more widespread,” Mary Nguyen Barry of Education Reform Now, the report’s coauthor, said in a statement. “Inadequate high school preparation, as reflected by postsecondary remedial course enrollment, is also a middle-class and upper-class problem and has real out-of-pocket financial consequences for all.”

The report points to the fight against the Common Core curriculum, a movement to set uniform education standards and requirements, as a key factor: “Public support has dissipated due to a combination of Tea Party activism, teacher and teacher union resistance, and the opt-out actions of frustrated, anti-testing parents,” according to the report.

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But Bruce Vandal, vice president of Complete College Now, says the higher education system owns the problem too, for poorly designed assessment tests and a college remedial-education system that doesn’t provide enough support—or a path out of remediation—for students who need extra help.

“The placement exams that they use and the processes they use to assess student readiness for college are flawed,” said Vandal, whose organization works on increasing the college graduation rate and closing the higher-education gap between whites and minorities.

“The norm is, ‘When in doubt, remediate,’ ” Vandal said. “That makes sense, except for the fact that the data shows us that students who are placed in remedial courses rarely make it out of them” and are more likely to drop out of college with debt and without a college degree.

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Education Reform Now’s researchers analyzed federal U.S. Department of Education data collected through both the National Postsecondary Student Aid and Beginning Postsecondary Student surveys.

They found that 43 percent of students in remedial courses were enrolled in public four-year colleges or private two- and four-year colleges; the other 57 percent were enrolled in public community colleges.

Factoring in financial aid and out-of-pocket costs, researchers found that more than 40 percent of incoming freshmen were shifted into a remediation program at an average of two classes per student.

“Overall, across all income levels and institutions of higher education, more than a half million recent high school graduates and their families spent on average an extra $3,000 and borrowed an extra $750 for college to study content and skills they should have learned in high school,” the report’s authors wrote.

At private four-year colleges and universities, however, the number of remediation classes, and the related costs, are significantly higher—as much as $12,000 for three or more classes.

But the costs aren’t solely financial, according to the report: Full-time bachelor’s degree students sidetracked into remedial courses their freshman year are 74 percent more likely to drop out of college, and take nearly a year longer to graduate, adding to tuition debt and delaying their workforce earning power.

Not surprisingly, Vandal said, the remediation track has a disproportionate effect on low-income and first-generation college students, who typically have a more difficult time getting into college, paying for it, and staying in long enough to earn a degree.

“We’ve created another hurdle to their success,” he said, noting that many come from families and schools that have fewer resources than their affluent white peers do. “They have to pay tuition, plus an additional course or multiple courses, and none of them count toward a degree.”

There are answers, Vandal said, including putting students in college-level courses with adequate supports: providing tutors for them as well as giving them extra time to complete assignments and exams. Five states have implemented such a system, he said, with “three to four times the success rate” of typical remediation programs.

“The students are completing their college level course in a single semester” and moving toward graduation more quickly; in most other remediation programs, he said, it usually takes about two years or longer for students to exit.

The program, called corequisite remediation, has been a success at Pikes Peak Community College in Colorado, where the state’s community-college administration installed it in 2012 after 60 percent of its incoming freshmen class was referred to remediation.

“Before the reform, only 31 percent of students enrolled in remediation at community colleges in Colorado finished the college-level course in two years,” according to a report by the New America Foundation. “Now, 64 percent complete it in one year.”

Vandal hopes to expand adoption of the program. “Our goal is by 2018, those states will have the vast majority of students in corequisite remediation,” he said. Given the statistics and the urgency of the student debt problem, “we’re quickly reaching a tipping point.”