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The Remediation Debate
Are we serving the needs of underprepared college students?

By Bridget Terry Long


 
There are numerous barriers to enrollment and persistence in higher education, but one factor that may play a significant role in helping underprepared students is college remediation. New research suggests that students in remediation have better educational outcomes than do students with similar backgrounds and preparation who do not take remedial courses.

Only one-third of students leave high school at least minimally prepared for college, and the proportion is much smaller for black and Hispanic students. Among those who persevere to college, 35 to 40 percent require remedial courses in reading, writing or mathematics. The courses are intended to address academic deficiencies and to prepare students for subsequent college success. Because the average college student attends a nonselective institution to which he or she is almost assured admission, the remediation placement exam taken when first arriving on campus has become the key academic gatekeeper to postsecondary study.

Despite the extensive use of remedial courses, which are also called developmental or basic skills courses, researchers have only begun to understand the role remediation plays in higher education and the effects of the courses on subsequent student performance. Institutions vary substantially in how they place, educate and support remedial students, and more needs to be done to determine best practices.

Meanwhile, many states are debating measures that would limit how remedial courses are offered and who takes them. But policymakers should exercise caution in pursuing such actions, as the consequences are likely to affect thousands of college students each year.

The remediation policy debate
The debate about the merits of investing in remediation, which has an estimated annual cost in the billions, has intensified in recent years. There are many questions about whether remediation should be offered in colleges at all.

Some states, such as Connecticut and Arizona, officially do not allow remedial education at public institutions, and several institutions have chosen to expel students who have severe academic deficiencies. For example, during the fall of 2001, the California State University system "kicked out more than 2,200 students-nearly seven percent of the freshman class-for failing to master basic English and math skills," according to a 2002 Los Angeles Times article by Rebecca Trounson. Supporters of such measures question the appropriateness of work below college level at a postsecondary institution and suggest that remedial courses remove the incentive to adequately prepare for college while in high school.

Most states and colleges, nonetheless, have remedial programs. A 1996 study by the National Center for Education Statistics found that 81 percent of public four-year colleges and 100 percent of two-year colleges offered remediation. However, the policies governing remediation vary greatly. States and institutions often differ in how they interpret postsecondary standards, and so there is a great deal of variation as to what constitutes a remedial course and how students are selected into remedial courses. Selection into remediation is usually determined with a combination of measures including placement exams in reading, writing and mathematics, standardized test scores, and high school achievement.

While the thresholds for remediation differ greatly, most remedial courses do not count toward degree credits. Therefore, placement into remediation could lengthen the time to completion and might also have implications for financial aid due to federal time limitations. Moreover, remedial courses are often the gateway for students to enroll in upper-level courses. About two-thirds of campuses nationally restrict enrollment in some classes until remediation is complete. As a result, remedial placement can restrict students' class schedules and impede the ability of community college students to transfer to four-year institutions.

While most states allow remediation, many are considering other ways to limit the courses. Some policymakers have argued that community colleges should be the principal provider of remedial courses. At least eight states, including Florida and Illinois, restrict remediation to two-year institutions. In a controversial move, the City University of New York (CUNY) system joined this group during the late 1990s when it eliminated remedial courses at its four-year institutions. Focusing instead on the finances behind remediation, states such as Texas, Tennessee and Utah have imposed or are considering limits on the government funding of remedial coursework. Others, like the California State University system, impose a one-year limit on remedial work.

Several initiatives seek to pass on the costs of remediation to students. For example, the Florida legislature chose to require college students who need to repeat courses to pay the cost of their remediation, an expense much larger than the regular tuition rate. Instead of passing the costs on to students, several states have targeted secondary school systems and blame them for the needs of remedial students. During the CUNY controversy, Rudolph Giuliani voiced the sentiment of numerous officials when he was quoted as saying that the "university system currently devotes far too much money and effort to teaching skills that students should have learned in high school." In a similar vein, for a short time, Minnesota allowed colleges to bill secondary schools for the cost of their graduates' remedial classes.

However, measures that target the responsibilities of secondary schools do not fully address the problem of remediation. Only 64 percent of students earn a standard high school diploma, and high school graduation standards often do not coincide with the competencies needed in college. Moreover, such actions might prompt high schools to steer underprepared students from entering college altogether so the schools will not be responsible for their remedial costs.

Impact of remediation on student achievement
While the policy debate about college remediation focuses on where it should be offered and who should pay for it, more careful thought should be given to what impact remediation has on students. Do the courses help remedial students perform better and remain in higher education longer? Is the investment in remedial programs worthwhile? In a paper I wrote with Eric Bettinger, we considered how remedial courses affect the educational progress of students.

To understand the impact of remedial courses on subsequent educational experiences, our study compared the outcomes of students placed in remediation to those who were not. However, selection issues precluded a straightforward analysis. Because less-prepared students are more likely to drop out even in the absence of remediation, finding that remedial students are less likely to persist than non-remediated students is neither surprising nor an appropriate test of the impact of remedial courses. Therefore, the effects of lower preparation have to be separated from the effects of a remedial course.

Fortunately, the higher education system in Ohio provides an opportunity for such analysis. Public colleges and universities in Ohio are free to set their own admissions, placement and remediation policies. While there are statewide standards to distinguish between remedial and college-level work, given this autonomy, colleges differ in how they interpret these standards at the campus level. All schools require entering freshmen to take placement exams, but the cutoffs for placement vary. Therefore, two identical students attending different colleges face dissimilar probabilities of remediation based on each college's policy. Using this setup, we compared students with similar academic backgrounds who were in and out of remediation due to the differences in the policies of their institutions.

The following example further explains the intuition of this empirical strategy. Consider the hypothetical case of Jim and John. Jim lives in Cleveland and attends the closest college, the imaginary Cleveland College. John is from the opposite side of the state, Cincinnati, and attends the imaginary Cincinnati College. Jim and John have identical backgrounds, ACT scores, years of preparation and grades in high school courses. However, because Cleveland College uses a higher threshold to determine remedial placement, Jim is placed into remediation while John is not. To determine the effect of remediation, our analysis compares the outcomes of Jim and John. The paper, therefore, compares two observationally similar students to understand the impact of remediation.

Because we needed information on students' academic backgrounds, our project focused on traditional-age (18 to 20 years old) college undergraduates who took a standardized test (the ACT). We also limited our sample to full-time students who had signified the intent to complete a degree, so that baccalaureate completion would be a relevant indicator of success.

To sufficiently isolate the effect of remedial courses from other factors, the analysis accounted for differences in demographics, high school preparation and performance, test scores and family background. Also, because the estimation strategy relied upon students for whom the probability of remediation differed according to the college they attended, students who would always be placed in remediation (i.e. those who have very low levels of preparation) or who would never be placed in remediation (i.e. those who have very high levels of preparation) were not included.

While a simple comparison of students in and out of the courses would suggest that remediation has a negative effect on outcomes, the use of a more appropriate comparison group, as we did in our study, reveals that remediation produces positive results. The study estimates that over five years, math and English remediation reduce the likelihood of stopping out nearly ten percent and increase the likelihood of completing a baccalaureate degree by nine percent. Moreover, English remediation appears to reduce the likelihood of transferring to a less selective or lower-level college.

In summary, the results of the research suggest that students in remediation have better educational outcomes in comparison to students with similar backgrounds and preparation who are not required to take the courses.

Implications for policy
Remediation is an important part of higher education, and it plays a very significant role in attempting to address the needs of the thousands of underprepared students. While further research is needed to more fully understand the relative effects of different kinds of remedial programs and services, it is clear that remediation could play a significant role in improving students' chances for college success. Our research certainly suggests that remediation improves student outcomes.

While some policymakers have proposed shifting all remediation to community colleges, limiting the number of courses students can take, or charging differential rates for such work, these reforms should be approached with caution. Additionally, given the thousands and thousands of students who need remediation, exclusionary admissions policies are likely to have widespread effects on enrollment and degree completion patterns. Also community colleges are often strapped for funding and may not have the capacity and resources to provide effective remedial programs for an entire state.

As noted in an October 2002 Time magazine article, eliminating remediation in higher education "could effectively end the American experiment with mass postsecondary education." The costs of not offering remediation are also likely to be much higher than the expense of the programs. Lower levels of education are associated with higher rates of unemployment, government dependency, crime and incarceration.

Moreover, the economy increasingly demands skilled workers. With persistent concerns about the abilities of high school graduates, higher education must find ways to address the needs of underprepared students and provide the American economy with the skilled workers it needs.

It is also important to acknowledge that the need for remediation is rooted in the K–12 system. Students often do not take the appropriate courses, and high schools and colleges need to communicate more about the academic expectations of continued study. One promising approach that could reduce the need for remediation is early placement testing, which helps to improve student advising and conveys the expectations of higher education. Several states, including Ohio, Kentucky, Oklahoma and North Carolina, have begun to give the college remedial placement exam to students who are still in grade ten or 11. The results of the test are then shared with the students and their parents as a way to inform all parties of the competencies that still need to be mastered in order to avoid college remediation.

As long as students graduate from high school underprepared, remediation will continue to be an important and necessary practice. Therefore, efforts should focus on helping those who are no longer in high school to gain the skills that will help them succeed in higher education while also supporting policies that could reduce the need for remediation.


Bridget Terry Long, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Education and Economics at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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