Surprises About College Remediation

Surprises About College Remediation on ParentChat with ReginaYou couldn’t know less about college remedial courses. That’s what I found out from a recent report just released by Education Reform Now. It was an eye-opening read for me and will be for you, too, parents. In case you think that remedial classes are where low-income kids from underfunded urban high schools hang out once they go to the local community college, you are wrong—at least about half the time anyway.

Here are just a few quotations that should make your head spin as you think both about your own children and about our nation’s children (see the excellent full report, co-authored by Mary Nguyen Barry and Michael Dannenberg, for more information):

  • “In 2011, over half a million rising college freshmen—approximately one in four students entering college the fall after high school graduation—had to enroll in remedial coursework during their first year of enrollment in an institution of higher education.”
  • “The aggregate additional, direct college expenses these half million students and families had to pay out of pocket for remedial coursework in the first year . . . was nearly $1.5 billion.”
  • “Of those half million students, nearly half—45 percent—came from middle, upper-middle, and high-income families.”
  • “Only 57 percent were enrolled in public community colleges.”
  • At private four-year colleges, “remedial students from the top 20 percent of national family incomes report taking one more developmental class than students from the bottom 20 percent of national family incomes: 2.7 vs. 1.6 classes.”
  • “Underprepared students from families in the top income quintile (incomes above $113,440) that attended private nonprofit four-year colleges spent on average over $12,000 extra to study content they should have learned in high school.”
  • “First-time full-time bachelor’s degree-seeking students who take a developmental education course in the first year after high school graduation are 74 percent more likely to drop out of college than first-time full-time non-remedial students.”
  • “Even among those that do graduate, first-time full-time [bachelor’s degree-seeking] remedial students take 11 months longer . . . to complete [their degree] than non-remedial students.”

In reflecting on all this in our USACollegeChat podcast episode this week (“Episode 76: College Remedial Course Statistics You Didn’t Know”), my cohost Marie Segares and I simply say, “What is wrong with this picture and whose fault is it?” Because anybody can see that something is plainly wrong.

Is it that colleges have unreasonable standards? Is it that high schools are not doing the job they should be doing in preparing kids for college? Is it that high schools are inflating grades to get more kids to graduate and to get more kids into better colleges? Is it that more and more kids are going to college when some probably shouldn’t?

You can choose your own favorite explanation, but I am putting a healthy share of the blame on high schools. I don’t do that lightly (having co-founded a public high school in New York City not so long ago), but I do it, just the same. I have watched kids struggle with remedial English and math courses in college, sometimes having to take them more than once, condemned to a purgatory of remediation from which many never escape—a purgatory of lackluster courses, often taught by adjuncts who are not full-time employees of the college. Anyone can see that’s not going to end well.

And what about all the talk of making kids “college ready”—talk that has increasingly flooded the education world in the past five years, talk from researchers as well as from high school educators? If you believe the data in this report, high schools are failing to make one in four college freshmen “college ready”—and that’s not counting the kids who didn’t make it to college in the first place.

As a parent, you probably can’t solve this problem. But if you would like to go into your child’s high school years with your eyes open, here are a few ideas:

  • Ask your high school principal to tell you and your fellow parents what percent of graduates from the high school have to take remedial courses in their freshman year of college. If your principal does not know that statistic, he or she should find out. Immediately.
  • Ask your superintendent to tell you and your fellow parents what percent of graduates from the school district have to take remedial courses in their freshman year of college. If your superintendent does not know that statistic, he or she should find out. Immediately.
  • Make sure that your child’s English and math skills are improving every year of high school and that your child takes challenging courses in both fields.
  • Check to see that your child is reading nonfiction and fiction and writing coherent and analytical pieces every week (and not all in English class).
  • Read what your child is writing for school assignments before they are turned in to satisfy yourself about the quality of your child’s writing.
  • If you are thinking to spend money on an SAT prep course, consider whether that money would be better spent on making sure that your child is actually improving his or her English and math skills and not just learning how to take the test—get a tutor if your child needs help and enroll your child in an enrichment summer course at a nearby college if he or she doesn’t.

When your child complains about your increased attention to his or her English and math skills, say this: “College remedial courses are the last place you want to be, because you might never get out.” That should do it.

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