Is Remedial Ed Necessary?

Published November 1, 1999

Offering remedial education courses in colleges and universities to high school graduates who are under-prepared for college-level work is a serious error, according to the former interim president of the City University of New York’s Bernard M. Baruch College, which eliminated remedial courses in 1998.

If these under-prepared students indeed are capable of succeeding in a rigorous high school program, then the best place to do this is not in college but high school, argues Lois Cronholm, writing in a recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Baruch College eliminated remedial courses on its own initiative in 1998, well before Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani’s commission urged CUNY to limit remedial education. All students entering Baruch now are prepared to meet the rigorous standards of college-level work without the need for remedial coursework. Despite the higher standards, Baruch’s enrollment increased by 4 percent last year, from 10,968 to 11,380.

What convinced Baruch administrators to eliminate remedial education was an analysis showing that the need for remedial education was not correlated with a student’s background, but with the high school the student attended. All of the schools gave the students a high school diploma, but not all of the schools endowed their graduates with a high school education.

“We discovered that students with similar backgrounds–economically, socially, culturally, geographically–who differ only in which high schools they attend have vastly different outcomes upon graduation,” writes Cronholm, who is now CEO of the Center for Jewish History. “We found that the majority of students from certain schools require remediation while many students from other schools do not.”

What this means is that many remedial students could have avoided the need for remediation simply by attending a different school.

But if the problem is caused by the learning environment in a child’s K-12 school, does it make sense to try to apply a remedy at the college level? If high school graduates come to college unable to add fractions or read at an eighth-grade level, these symptoms call for the application of a remedy at a much earlier stage than their freshman year in college. So long as colleges offer remedial ed to fix K-12 education shortcomings, failing K-12 schools will have no incentive to produce students who are properly prepared for college.

“Wouldn’t it be far better if we focused on changing the elementary- and secondary-education system so that students master the knowledge they need at the most appropriate ages?” asks Cronholm. We must demand more of our educational institutions, she argues, urging an end to “ill-advised attempts to reform the student.”