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The Kiss of Death?
An alternative view of college remediation

By Clifford Adelman

BEFORE ANYONE SEALS any more decisions on the future of remedial courses in colleges and community colleges, it might be advisable to consider lessons from some national data on the relationship between remediation and degree completion.

The data come from the college transcripts -- which don't lie about such matters -- of the national high school class of 1982, which was followed through higher education by the National Center for Education Statistics to 1993.

That long-term history allows people plenty of time to finish associate's or bachelor's degrees, and it is degree completion that is the Dow Jones Industrial Average of U.S. higher education.

There are five lessons from these data: 1) The amount of remedial work matters; 2) the type of remedial work matters even more; 3) the proportion of students requiring remediation in college varies widely by geographic region and urbanicity of high school; 4) the orange lights on future students in need of remediation start flashing in high school -- and in the context of students' coursework, not grades; and 5) we can fix some of the secondary school coursework problem, and thus begin to shrink the remedial empires in higher education.

Let us focus only on those students who earned more than ten credits and attended two-year and/or four-year colleges, thus excluding incidental students and those who attended only trade schools (There is too much statistical noise in these groups for a clean analysis). What is the highest undergraduate degree they earned by age 30?

  Earned Bachelorís Earned Associateís Total
No remedial courses 54% 6% 60%
One course 45 10 55
Two courses 31 14 45
Three or four courses 24 20 44
Five or more courses 20 15 35
Three or more, including reading 18 17 35

The first lesson, then, is that one remedial course affects both bachelor's and overall degree completion rates a bit, but there are more serious consequences for students taking more than one remedial.

If a student has a bad Algebra 2 course in high school, both four-year and two-year colleges can fix the problem in one semester, maybe two. Even if the student evidences a writing problem, one semester of high-intensity instruction can do the job -- two semesters for students whose native language is not English, since writing is the last of the four language skills people learn when they study a new language.

An allied lesson of this little table is that remediation is more of a way of life at community colleges, where it is not a serious impediment to associate's degree completion among those who make the effort.

The first lesson commands us to ask what kind of remediation is at issue. Among students who had to take remedial reading, 66 percent were in three or more other remedial courses, and only 12 percent of this group earned bachelor's degrees. Among students who were in remedial reading for more than one course, nearly 80 percent were in two or more other remedial courses, and less than nine percent earned bachelor's degrees.

No matter what the combination, the conclusion makes unfortunate sense: If you can't read, you can't read the math problem either (let alone the chemistry textbook, the historical documents or the business law cases).

The community college environment was more supportive for remedial reading students, as 16 percent of them earned an associate's degree. But for those community college students who were stuck in remedial reading for more than a year, the associate's degree completion rate fell to less than five percent. This, too, is no surprise, as more than half of the long-term remedial reading students in community colleges also were enrolled in mathematics courses below the level of algebra 2.

Our third lesson involves the geographic concentration of remedial students in terms of their high school origin. Where did those who took more than two remedial courses in college come from, by census division and urbanicity of high school?

The reason we ask the question is that if we are going to fix the problem in the pre-collegiate years, we have to know where to take our toolboxes. The most disproportionate contributions to the national pool of remedial students were from the following areas:

  Proportion of
Remedial Students
Proportion of
All Students
South Atlantic, suburban 10.4% 6.8%
Pacific, suburban 9.6 8.3
Mid-Atlantic, urban 5.9 3.8
East North Central, urban 5.4 3.9
South Atlantic, rural 5.1 4.8
West South Central, rural 4.5 3.1

No doubt this table defies the conventional wisdom that only the vast numbers of kids from inner city high schools need remediation. The real "vast numbers" of U.S. college students graduated from suburban high schools, and suburban America exhibits a good deal of variance in its socioeconomic composition and quality of schooling.

Knowing where to take the toolbox is but a first step. Knowing which secondary school performance indicators are the best guides to the most effective use of the tools is a second.
In this respect -- as in so many others -- the nature of students' high school curriculum (not grades or class rank, not test scores) is the best advanced warning sign.

Consider only those high school seniors who continued on to college. If we took the top 40 percent of these students on each of three performance indicators, it is obvious that class rank or academic grade point average will fool you far more than the other indicators if you want to estimate the incoming college population that is likely to wind up in remediation.

Besides, there's not much your toolbox can do to fix grades or class rank. On the other hand, we can work on the intensity of curriculum (e.g. the amount of math instruction and, more importantly, getting students beyond algebra 2), and on increasing the proportion of non-school time that students use to work on that curriculum.

Proportion of High School Seniors Who Took Remedial Courses in College
(by Three Pre-College Proportion Indicators

  Academic Curriculum
Test Score
Class Rank/
Academic GPA
Top 20% 27.5% 29.8% 36.3%
Top 21- 40% 48.4 50.4 53.8

The bottom line of this brief excursion is that "remediation" in higher education is not some monolithic plague that can be cured with a single prescription. Determined students and faculty can overcome at least mild deficiencies in preparation; and students whose native language is not English certainly should be allowed the same extra time and assistance in writing skills that I would expect if I went to school in a non-English-speaking country.

But when reading is at the core of the problem, the odds of success in college environments are so low that other approaches are called for. For example, every college and community college can establish a community technology center in its service area, where high school students can come after school, in evenings and on weekends to work with intelligent systems or CDs delivering reading tutorials at computer workstations. And total immersion summer programs employing group reading of dramas also would prove a productive approach.

Both of these strategies involve peer support and interaction. These are the keys to student engagement and involvement, and, ultimately, to the demise of remediation. But until that happy day, let us be more sensible about the way we sort the problem -- and the type of alternative investments we make in its solution.

Clifford Adelman is a visiting fellow at The College Board.

Photo by Dennis Brack, Black Star, for CrossTalk

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