By Alexander W. Astin
IT GOES WITHOUT SAYING that higher education plays a major part in shaping
civic life in modern American society. Despite promising developments both inside
and outside of academe, the American system of higher education still has a very
long way to go before it can claim to be genuinely committed to the task of renewing
and revitalizing civic engagement and democracy in the United States.
One commonly shared belief in higher education is that the "excellence"
of our institutions is defined primarily by our resources and reputation. An obvious
problem with this belief is that such a definition fails to address directly our
basic societal purpose of teaching and public service. We focus more on enrolling
top students than on educating them well. We focus more on enhancing our reputation
in the eyes of the community than on serving that community.
As I consider all the ways in which these traditional beliefs interfere with our
ability to improve and strengthen civic life in American Society, no problem strikes
me as being more important than the education of the so-called underprepared or "remedial"
student. By examining this issue in some depth, we can begin to see how it might
be possible for higher education institutions to become more effective agents of
positive social change.
Let me begin by asserting what may seem like a radical proposition: The education
of the "remedial" student is the most important educational problem in
America today, more important than educational funding, affirmative action, vouchers,
merit pay, teacher education, financial aid, curriculum reform, and the rest.
Providing effective "remedial'' education would do more to alleviate our
most serious social and economic problems than almost any other action we could take.
If we fail to develop more effective means for educating "remedial"
students, we will find it difficult to make much headway in resolving some of our
most pressing social and economic problems: unemployment, crime, welfare, health
care, racial tensions, the maldistribution of wealth, and citizen disengagement from
the political process.
The issues of race relations and affirmative action are intimately connected to
the issue of underpreparation, since we have created a competitive, hierarchical
higher education system which dispenses privilege on the basis of measures -- the
GPA and standardized test scores -- that put our two largest racial minority groups
at a competitive disadvantage.
Why do we shun remedial education?
The underprepared student is a kind of pariah in American higher education, and some
of the reasons are obvious: Since most of us believe that the excellence of our departments
and of our institutions depends on enrolling the very best-prepared students that
we can, to admit underprepared students would pose a real threat to our excellence.
Why would any sane institution have any interest in admitting such students?
But here we encounter a bit of a dilemma for those of us who work in the public
institutions: Since the law in many states requires that at least some underprepared
students be given the opportunity to pursue postsecondary education, how can this
be done so as not to put our sense of excellence at risk?
The answer, of course, is that we have created hierarchical public systems of
institutions where the least-well-prepared students are consigned either to community
colleges or to relatively nonselective public colleges. And when we find ourselves
forced to admit a few underprepared students -- for example, because of a commitment
to affirmative action, in order to remain competitive in intercollegiate athletics,
or simply to maintain enrollments -- we likewise avoid having much contact with them
by hiring part-time instructors from the outside to do the work.
What is a "remedial" student?
"Remedial student" and "remedial education" are basically social
constructions that have strong negative connotations. Just as in medicine one gives
a "remedy" to cure an illness, so in education there must be something
"wrong" with the student who needs to be "remedied."
There are at least three aspects of the "remedial" concept that are
misleading. First is the use of categorical terminology to describe a phenomenon
that is relativistic and arbitrary. Most remedial students turn out to be simply
those who have the lowest scores on some sort of normative measurement -- standardized
tests, school grades and the like. But where we draw the line is completely arbitrary.
Second, the "norms" that define a "low" score are highly variable
from one setting to another. Third, and perhaps most importantly, the problem with
the concept of the remedial student is that there is little, if any, evidence to
support the argument that these students are somehow "incapable" of learning,
that they have markedly different "learning styles" from other students,
that they require some radically different type of pedagogy, or that they need to
be segregated from other students in order to learn.
The individual and the institution
Just as individual citizens have responsibilities as well as rights, so do academic
institutions. And just as excessive materialism and narcissism can interfere with
the individual's ability to be a good citizen, so can an academic institution's preoccupation
with acquisitiveness and self-aggrandizement interfere with its ability to be a "good
citizen" in the community of institutions and in the larger society.
Just as our preoccupation with materialism, individualism and competitiveness
makes it difficult for us to be responsible citizens who work cooperatively for the
collective good of all citizens (especially the least advantaged ones), so does higher
education's preoccupation at the institutional level with resource acquisition and
reputational enhancement make it difficult to appreciate the critical importance
of effectively educating all students, and especially those who are underprepared.
Since most of us have managed to isolate ourselves physically from our less advantaged
fellow citizens, most of them have little or no contact with us. Similarly, in higher
education we manage to avoid contact with most underprepared students through selective
admissions, by tracking them into community colleges, by hiring outsiders to teach
them, and by continuing to support grading and norm-based testing practices in the
lower schools that almost guarantee that large proportions of them will be discouraged
from even considering further education beyond high school.
Why do underprepared students make us so uncomfortable? While our beliefs about the
importance of resource acquisition and reputational enhancement are consciously acknowledged
by most academics, there are other, closely related beliefs that are more "hidden,"
even though they can have profound effects on how we view the issue of remediation
and underprepared students.
One such belief, which is virtually never acknowledged, much less examined critically
within academe, is what I like to call "the importance of being smart."
Much of our fear of remedial students and much of our unwillingness to get involved
in educating them can be traced to our uncritical acceptance of this belief and to
the fact that most of us are not even consciously aware of the power and scope of
Most of us clearly favor our brightest students, not only in admissions and the
award of financial aid, but also in the classroom. If bright students enroll at our
institution and take our classes, this reflects well on our own brightness: Surely
we must be smart if our students are so smart! But if our students are not so smart,
then this reflects poorly on us.
The real problem here is that we value being smart much more than we value developing
smartness. In our relentless and largely unconscious preoccupation with being smart,
we forget that our institutions' primary mission is to develop students' intellectual
capacities, not merely to select and certify those students whose intellectual talents
are already well developed by the time they reach us.
This preoccupation with being smart is part of the reason why we continue to support
a grading system and a standardized testing industry that are geared to ranking and
rating students rather than to reflecting how much they are actually learning. We
have inflicted this same "normative" system of testing on the lower schools,
such that politicians and the public now assess the "quality" of schools
simply on the basis of which ones have the "smartest" students, rather
than in terms of which ones are the most effective educationally.
Institutional selectivity, of course, is intimately tied into our obsession with
being, and being seen by others as, smart. In the culture of academia, simply being
admitted to or employed by a selective institution is a mark of individual smartness.
In much the same way that people living under a monarchy routinely judge each other's
quality in terms of their bloodlines, so are educated people in the United States
inclined to judge the quality of others on the basis of where they attended college.
This discussion highlights still another problem that stems from our preoccupation
with institutional selectivity: Using a simplistic yardstick like an SAT or ACT score
or the selectivity of one's institution as the principal indicator of a person's
ability or smartness not only distorts and misrepresents the wonderful diversity
of abilities and talents of our students and ourselves, but implicitly diminishes
the great social and cultural importance of "citizenship" talents such
as empathy, self-understanding, honesty, responsibility, and the ability to work
Defending selective admissions and tracking
Selective admissions is, in certain respects, the process by which we admit only
those students who already know what we're supposed to teach them.
Selective admissions is frequently defended on the grounds that the tests and
school grades that are used to exclude underprepared applicants "predict"
performance in college. This is the equivalent of saying that a hospital or a clinic
should refuse to admit or treat the sickest patients because their condition "predicts"
a poorer outcome than would be the case for patients with less serious illnesses.
Selectivity in admissions also is frequently rationalized on educational grounds:
The brightest students need to be around other bright students in order to realize
their maximum potential. This is, in effect, the "center of excellence"
argument, where the best students and the best faculty and the greatest resources
are concentrated in one place.
This concept poses serious problems when it is viewed from a systems perspective:
What civic interest is served by concentrating the least well-prepared students and
the least resources in a separate set of institutions? How can such an arrangement
be rationalized in terms of the larger interest of the community and the society?
Creating a real higher education community
While American colleges and universities can be justifiably proud of their diversity
and autonomy, a collection of 3,400 institutions simply "doing their individual
things" does not make for a coherent or effective system. The problem is not
that we are all so wonderfully individual and diverse, but rather that the sum total
of our individual uncoordinated efforts doesn't always add up to a meaningful whole.
Nowhere is the tension between individual and community needs better illustrated
than in the case of the lower-performing or remedial student. Among institutions
that have more applicants than available places -- and this includes most of the
baccalaureate-granting colleges -- nobody really wants these students.
Such a policy might make sense from the myopic perspective of an individual institution
that is striving for "excellence" in conventional terms, but it makes no
sense from the perspective of an educational system that is trying to educate the
entire citizenry. If underprepared students are shunned by most institutions because
they threaten their sense of academic excellence, how can we ever hope to give any
real priority to educating them?
Rather than seeing the underprepared student as a burden or as a threat to our
excellence, we need to understand that we and the society and our democracy have
an enormous stake in what happens to these students.
The systems approach
As long as institutions continue to operate independently and to persist in their
traditional beliefs about excellence, any institution automatically puts its "excellence"
at risk if it unilaterally chooses either to admit substantially greater numbers
of underprepared students or to invest substantially more resources in educating
One possible consequence of such a change in policy would be that the institution's
main constituencies -- its alumni, donors and prospective students, together with
their parents, teachers and counselors -- will begin to believe that the institution
is "slipping" or "in decline" because it is "lowering its
standards." This is a real concern that underscores the need for institutions
to address the underpreparation problem collaboratively.
If we see fit to initiate a "systems level" discussion of underpreparation,
it will soon become obvious that all types of institutions must share some of the
responsibility for meeting this challenge, much like the agreement that insurance
companies in most states have reached to share part of the responsibility for insuring
"high risk" drivers.
It also will become obvious that the secondary school people should be invited
to join in the conversation, and that we higher education folk must eventually form
much closer partnerships with the lower schools in the interests of enhancing the
quality of pre-collegiate education.
Other benefits of collaboration
The interinstitutional "systems" conversations being advocated here could
help to dispel some of the myths about underpreparation: for example, that such students
are simply incapable of learning, or that this problem is an issue only for certain
types of institutions (a high percentage of freshman at the University of California,
for example, are required to take remedial English).
It also would address some of the core issues that individual institutions will
not, or simply cannot, address on their own: How are different types of institutions
going to divide up the responsibility for teaching underprepared students? Is it
educationally sound simply to track most of them into community colleges, which have
the most limited educational resources? Are there structural changes -- such as making
each community college a part of a university -- that would help to bring more educational
resources to bear on this problem? Can some of the university's educational and social
science research capability be focused more directly on assessing the impact of various
approaches to remediation?
Research on programs for underprepared students and preparation of faculty to
teach such students should be a collaborative effort carried out at the systems level.
In this way, the different approaches taken in different institutions can be viewed
as a grand "natural experiment," where evaluators in the various institutional
settings work together to identify the most effective educational strategies for
Possibilities for action
The real question, I suppose, is how to change from an individualistic to a community
mentality. I sometimes have fantasies that, some day soon, Harvard will call together
all of the postsecondary institutions in the Boston area and just say, "Let's
do it." The fantasy continues: UC Berkeley, not to be outdone, calls Stanford
and all the other Bay Area campuses together and says, "Let's do it." And
the other prestigious flagship universities -- Michigan, UCLA, Wisconsin, Texas,
Washington, and the rest -- follow suit.
Fantasy or not, one thing seems certain: If institutions at the top of the pecking
order, such as Harvard and Berkeley, see fit to deviate from the sacred cow of selectivity,
this in effect "gives permission'' to the rest of us to do it.
Current political trends, however, seem to be headed in the opposite direction:
Major public college systems such as the City University of New York and the California
State University are talking about "phasing out" remedial education. If
the more elite public and private institutions continue to stand passively on the
sidelines, these wrongheaded, antidemocratic and self-destructive efforts to dump
the underprepared completely out of the public college system may well succeed.
Another possible scenario would involve an initiative from state government. What
if the legislature of a large state like New York, California or Texas were to establish
an incentive funding program which would, in effect, put a bounty on each underprepared
student who successfully completes a postsecondary education program? Such an initiative
would almost certainly change the institutional perception of the underprepared student
from a "liability" to an "asset."
Still another possibility would be grass-roots efforts, possibly encouraged or
sponsored by regional consortia or by national associations like the American Council
on Education, where groups of similar institutions would jointly agree to substantially
expand and upgrade their programs for underprepared students.
Some concluding thoughts
The problem that plagues our contemporary democracy is in many respects the same
problem that de Tocqueville identified more than 150 years ago: the tension between
individualism and community. Even our most recent research on students highlights
the importance of community; the single most important source of influence on the
individual student turns out to be the peer group.
We associate freedom with individualism, and democracy with community, but the
two are really inseparable: We create our own democracy and our government through
our individual beliefs and actions, while at the same time the condition and quality
of our community and democracy defines what kind of individual freedoms and what
kind of life we enjoy. The real question is what kind of community and democracy
we want to have.
An open inquiry into our most deeply felt beliefs will show that our preoccupation
with acquiring resources, enhancing our institutional reputations, and being smart
and being seen by others as smart has affected practically everything we do, and
that many of these effects are contrary not only to our own best interests as academics,
but also to the educational mission of our institutions.
Alexander W. Astin is Allan M. Cartter Professor of Higher Education, and director
of the Higher Education Research Institute, at UCLA.
This article was adapted from a paper presented at the American Council on
Education's conference, "Higher Education and Civic Responsibility," in
Tallahassee, Florida in June.