There is a lot of attention being given these days to remediation in higher education. “Failure to Launch,” reads one representative headline, “Community College Students Can’t Meet Higher Goals.”
The numbers vary but, on average, suggest that about 35 percent to 40 percent of students in state colleges and universities are held for one or more basic skills courses. The numbers increase in the community college, typically 60 percent and higher. So, roughly half of post-secondary students in the United States need some assistance to do college-level work.
These numbers are alarming; however, some form of remediation has existed in American higher education for a very long time, and, by some estimates, the numbers have remained modestly stable. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, more than 40 percent of entering students were involved in a preparatory program. In the 1970s, Berkeley was holding about 50 percent of its students for remedial English. On some campuses, the numbers are going up, and that increase can be accounted for by the declining conditions of some K–12 districts but, also, by an increase in the number of people attending college: people who, a generation or two ago, would not have thought college possible or economically necessary. Over the last thirty years, the percentage of people over age forty attending college has more than doubled.
Placement in basic English, reading, or mathematics is strongly affected by educational and economic inequality. Yet, in one national study 24 percent of students from the top income quartile took one or more such courses. Likewise, 10 percent of students who had a strong pre-collegiate education were also held for one or more remedial courses. Both across and within basic skills classrooms, the students are a varied lot.
For students, basic skills courses extend time in school. They must take courses that typically earn no graduation or transfer credit, and if they have financial aid, they use it up. At the legislative level, it is the expense of large numbers of basic skills courses that is propelling remediation onto the national stage. But several studies suggest that the entire remedial effort accounts for 1 percent to 2 percent of the country’s higher education budget. That’s a lot of money, but not of the catastrophic levels the headlines lead us to believe.
Legislative outrage is fueled not only by expense, but also by a string of reports showing that the success rates of students held for remedial courses is not good. For example, of those students placing at the lowest level of basic skills, especially in more than one area—math, English, reading—only 16 percent complete the entire remedial series. Yet, the research findings on effectiveness are mixed, and do show that for many students who are not severely underprepared (particularly in reading, the core academic skill), basic skills courses can make a positive difference ...
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