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Pain Point: College Level Remediation and the “Diploma To Nowhere”

A study recently published by the American Institutes for Research (AIR) revealed the near-embarrassing fact that twenty percent of students enrolled in 4-year institutions and thirty percent of students enrolled in 2-year institutions do not have the basic skills for post-secondary education or employment. Students surveyed could not understand basic computations, nor could they understand basic documents. Students’ crucial knowledge base is still lacking, and this should not be news to any educator.

The cost in real dollars of the failure of our education system is staggering.  Right now, I want to bring attention to the most direct cost: remediation at the college level.  In a current report, Diploma to Nowhere, by Strong American Schools, students’ educational shortcomings result in up to $2.89 billion spent on remedial courses, mainly in math and English. Fifty percent of 4-year students seventy-five percent of 2-year students could not even test to a proficient level of  literacy.

Placement in remedial courses is often shocking to students – 95% of remedial students reported completing most or all their work in high school, and most of these students had high school GPAs of above 3.0 and were enrolled in AP courses. As this signals an urgent need for genuine college preparation in high school, colleges should be preparing to accommodate these students as well.

There are wrong approaches to trying to turn this around.  Investing more money into these initiatives proved ineffective ten years ago , and the purse will prove to be the wrong approach today.  High schools are currently attempting to require high school exit exams in an attempt to ensure the readiness of their students. However, this issues falls back on the low expectations of their students, as the Center on Education Policy points out that many of the high school exit exams test at a 10th grade level. Elisabeth Barnett points out that high school exit exams and colleges require different things.

Support must come from internal focus and effective innovation at both the high school and college level. High schools must focus on challenging their students through rigorous and higher-order activities while raising their expectations of their students’ academics through difficult work rather than empty rhetoric. Speaking of, I’m working here internally to open source my College Readiness Curriculum, so I’ll speak more on that as it arises.

This problem is getting more and more costly, and I’m only talking about the direct costs.  The externalities (sagging skill base in the work force, a culture of ignorance, college dropouts, etc) are far more costly and incalculable.  According to the National Center of Education Statistics (NCES) in 1995, 35-40% of students in 2-year public institutions had to enroll in remedial courses. Today, that number is 43%. The same students – minorities, low-income students, and first-generation students – still make up the majority of the group.  We must absolutely rally around this disappointing news.  Innovators in this area please get in touch.