Remedial College Courses: A Point of No Return
Feb 5, 2010 | Comments (35)
The goalpost has been moved for American students. The conversation is no longer about simply access to college. Post-secondary success, as measured by student attainment of a two- or four-year degree, is now the target.
President Obama’s American Graduation Initiative intends to produce 5 million additional community college graduates by 2020, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is setting its sights on ‘doubling the number of young people who earn a postsecondary degree or certificate with value in the marketplace by the time they reach age 26.”
So, if college completion is the shared goal, why do students fail to reach that goal? Why is it that fewer than 60 percent of students entering four-year colleges in America are graduating? Why are graduation rates for minority and low-income students and for those who enter community college considerably lower?
Clearly, financial pressures and competition for time are significant reasons college students struggle to reach the finish line. According to a recent Public Agenda report, among students in four-year schools, 45 percent work more than 20 hours a week. For students in community colleges, more than 25 percent work for more than 35 hours per week. In fact, the majority of students who leave higher education before completing a degree or certificate say “the need to work and make money,” while attending classes, is the major reason they left.
But while academic challenges are not always the exclusive reason why students drop out, one significant problem for students — and disproportionately for low-income and first-generation college students - is the fact that 40 percent of students nationwide, and over 60 percent of students from urban districts, are required to take at least one remedial course upon entering college. In California, 84 percent of students enrolled in community college are required to take remedial English coursework. These remedial courses are non-credit bearing and cost students valuable time and hundreds of dollars per class, all before they can begin earning college credits. Nationally, $1.4 billion dollars are spent on post-high school remedial education. This is not money well spent, especially when you consider that only 17 percent of students who enroll in a remedial reading course complete a bachelor’s degree within eight years, as compared to 58 percent of students who do not require a remedial course. The remedial course trap takes many students by surprise, particularly low-income and first generation college students who make up 47 percent of all students taking remedial courses in college. Imagine graduating from high school, enrolling in a two-or four-year college, and taking a test prior to classes that determines you need to pay for courses that will not be credit bearing. Not exactly an incentive.
How do we begin to address the remedial course problem?
- Colleges receive funding for the number of students who enroll, not the number of students who complete courses or graduate. Instead, colleges should be accountable for student graduation and course completion rates. There are currently insufficient incentives for college persistence and graduation.
- High school coursework and graduation requirements need to be better aligned with the expectations of college so that students are not blindsided upon entry into their freshman year.
- High schools should be evaluated based, in part, on long-term outcomes for their students. States and districts that issue diplomas that do not correlate to college-ready standards are doing a disservice to their students.
- Teachers, counselors, and families need to make sure that high school students are aware of the perils of being identified for remedial coursework in college. Raising awareness amongst students early in their high school careers will likely have a positive impact on student engagement and effort. While requirements differ from college to college, generally students can qualify out of taking a placement if their ACT, SAT, and high school GPA are above a threshold. The California Early Assessment Program is an interesting example of an effort to identify high school students (11th grade) who may be heading for remedial college programs and provide opportunities for targeted skill development during the senior year.
For students who are currently channeled to remedial courses, it’s clear that the current system isn’t working. Unless we solve what Camille Esch has called the ‘leakiest juncture in the pipeline of American higher education’ we will never reach our goal of getting more students through - not just to - college.
Moving Beyond Access. College Success for Low-Income, First-Generation Students. Engle, Jennifer and Tinto, Vincent. The Pell Institute. 2008.
With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them. Myths and Realities About Why So Many Students Fail to Finish College. Public Agenda. 2009.
From High School to the Future: Potholes on the Road to College. Melissa Roderick, Jenny Nagaoka, Vanessa Coca, Eliza Moeller. 2008.
Posted in: Learning
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