Want Struggling Students to Drop Out? Send Them to Community College

Remedial classes continue to be a major hurdle to finishing a degree program.
(Photo: Christopher Futcher/Getty Images)

Nov 14, 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.

It’s designed to get low-income or academically deficient students up to speed on the way to an associate’s degree, which is the first step toward a well-paying job or a four-year college diploma. But it also adds time and money to the experience—twin costs most students can’t afford.

Yet a new study shows that most of the Golden State’s community college students who are required to take remedial courses don’t graduate, don’t earn job-training certificates, and don’t transfer to four-year schools.

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The study, released by the Public Policy Institute of California, also found that Latino, African American, and low-income students “are overrepresented in developmental courses” and that the system needs urgent reform to keep those students from falling through the cracks—and shut out of the high-tech jobs of the future that require at least some postsecondary education.

“Developmental education that is not effective comes at a high cost to students—not only in tuition and fees for courses that do not count toward a degree but also in time and lost income,” Marisol Cuellar Mejia, a PPIC research associate and coauthor of the report, said in a statement. “It is also costly to California, which needs more college-educated workers and relies on community colleges as an entry point to higher education.”

While most analysts blame public elementary and high schools for failing to prepare students for college, others say the problem is with college assessment tests that inaccurately determine whether a student has the capacity to do college-level work—and the remedial courses aren’t designed to emphasize a student’s strengths.

“This is not a function of students’ capacity to be successful. It’s not a function of the instruction—the instructors do good work,” Bruce Vandal, vice president of Complete College America, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing college completion among minorities and low-income populations, told TakePart. Colleges, he said, “put them in a system that’s designed to fail.”

The PPIC report comes at a time of rising college costs and longer degree-completion times—driven in large part by remedial-education requirements. It’s not just community college students feeling the pinch. At private four-year colleges and universities, the number of remediation classes and their related costs are skyrocketing, costing students as much as $12,000 for three or more classes and stapling roughly $1.5 billion onto tuition costs nationwide.

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Meanwhile, less than half of all full-time college students at public universities earn their bachelor’s degrees within the standard four-year course of study, with most finishing more than five years after they enroll. At community colleges, just 5 percent of full-time students reach graduation day within the expected two years.

According to the PPIC study, “80 percent of entering students take at least one developmental course in math, English, or both.” Some students, the authors wrote, “are placed as many as four levels below college-level coursework,” a heavy lift for young people who may be first-generation college students, heads of household, or full-time workers struggling to get ahead.

Meanwhile, “math is the greater challenge for entering students: 65 percent of developmental education students enroll in a developmental math course, compared to 54 percent in developmental English,” according to the report. “Most developmental math students (73 percent) begin the sequence of classes at least two levels below college level.”

Low-income students and students of color make up the bulk of remedial course enrollees. The researchers found that 87 percent of both Latino and black students enroll in remedial classes, significantly more than the 70 percent of Asian American and 74 percent of white students who need to catch up academically. A full 86 percent of low-income students from all backgrounds enroll in classes designed to get them back on track.

At the same time, those enrolled in remedial coursework are less likely to go the distance and get the degree that makes it worthwhile, according to the study: “Only 44 percent of developmental math students successfully complete the [remedial] sequence, while 60 percent of developmental English students do so.”

Further, “students who start lower in the sequence are much more likely to drop out: only 17 percent of students who start four levels below college-level math complete the sequence, while 31 percent of developmental English students do so,” the authors wrote. “Just 16 percent of developmental education students earn a certificate or associate degree within six years, and 24 percent successfully transfer to four-year colleges.”

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While some blame the public school system for failing to prepare its graduates for school, others blame the higher education system for improperly assessing students and failing to give them the support they need. In some states, school districts are incorporating college-level work into the 12th-grade curriculum, and Vandal argues that colleges need to provide better support for struggling first-year students.

“It’s really not the case” that students aren’t ready or are incapable of doing the work, Vandal said, pointing to a study showing students can succeed with proper support. “What we’ve found through research is it’s the way we design remedial education that undermines” student success.

Rather than the sink-or-swim approach used now, he said, schools should make sure students have adequate support—tutors, for example, or mentors to guide them through the college experience.

“What we’ve learned is that by requiring students to take additional courses, it takes additional time and costs additional resources,” he said. “It creates, frankly, an insurmountable barrier to their success.”

Research shows that with proper support and guidance, the student success rate in remedial courses over a two-year period more than tripled, from roughly 20 percent to well above 60 percent.

“I reject the notion” that students aren’t capable of doing college-level work and would be better off in trade or skilled-labor programs, Vandal said. “We’ve given higher education a pass on this. Higher education is not good at assessing college readiness—they do a poor job of it—but they’ve designed a system that fails students.”