Remedial College Education Reaching Record Levels

Published December 1, 2008

For many college freshmen, school has just gotten a lot tougher.

That’s because one-third of them will be taking remedial courses to learn subjects they should have mastered in high school, according to a study by Strong American Schools, an education advocacy group based in Washington, DC. And colleges teaching subjects after high schools failed to do so means additional costs to students, their families, and taxpayers in general.

Remedial education at public universities costs taxpayers an estimated $2.5 billion per year, in addition to the tuition and fees paid by the students, said Adam Thivault, policy director of Strong American Schools.

Unprepared Students

The report, titled “Diploma to Nowhere” and released September 22, largely places the blame on American educational institutions, saying high schools “profoundly fail to prepare students for post-secondary work.”

Thivault agrees.

“We are not creating high enough standards and are not aligning them in college readiness standards,” Thivault said. “It is a problem in middle and high schools. They are not challenging [students] to get prepared.”

The lack of student preparation is spread among students of all races and income levels. Unpreparedness can affect even pupils who think they’ve done everything right—to their own surprise and embarrassment, Thivault said.

When Strong American Schools began its investigation a year ago, the group made it a point, Thivault said, to interview students who had been remediated.

“Almost four out of five that we surveyed had a 3.0 or higher grade-point average, and most of them expressed a negative emotion when asked [how they felt about being in remedial courses],” Thivault said.

Alternative Routes

According to the study, the majority of students said they had taken a rigorous course load in high school. Some even had taken advanced courses said to be similar to college courses.

Even so, the majority of the students said their high school courses were too easy, according to the report.

Part of the reason so many students wind up in remedial college courses, said Neal McCluskey, an education policy analyst at the Cato Institute in Washington DC, is that not all of them actually belong in college. Some would be served better by going to vocational school or spending a few years in the workforce before moving on to higher education.

“One of the biggest problems is that we as a society, especially political leaders, say that everyone essentially needs to go to college—that the American dream runs through ivy-covered buildings,” McCluskey explained. “No political leader, or most, won’t say, ‘Well, lots of kids don’t have the wherewithal to go to college.’ People don’t want to think leaders are condemning their kids to a second-class existence.”

Parental Choice

McCluskey offered what he said is an easy solution: Put public education choices in the hands of the parents, “not in the single system of public schools.”

Public schools, McCluskey explained, are required to treat all kids the same because they are in the same system. School choice exists to enable parents to choose schools based on their child’s aptitude for learning.

Elisha Maldonado ([email protected]) writes from California.

For more information …

“Diploma to Nowhere,” Strong American Schools, September 22, 2008: