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May 12, 2010 12:40 PM Talking About College Remediation

By Daniel Luzer

There’s a lot of remediation education going on in American colleges, says the Associated Press. According to an article by Christine Armario that went up yesterday:

Nationwide, about a third of first-year students in 2007-08 had taken at least one remedial course, according to the U.S. Department of Education. At public two-year colleges, that number rises to about 42 percent.
Education observers worry that the vast numbers of students coming to college unprepared will pose a major roadblock to President Barack Obama’s goal for the United States to once again lead the world in college degrees.

What’s more, according to the article, “nearly four out of five remedial students had a high school GPA of 3.0 or higher.” So not only are high schools not doing a good job preparing students for college, they’re not doing a good job identifying the problems students have in school either.

Reacting to that story, Nikhil Swaminathan over at GOOD explains why this is a problem: “the cost of remedial education ends up being passed onto the taxpayer, who ends up paying twice to teach a student a particular subject.” How wasteful.

Well, maybe. As Ben Miller at over at Education Sector explained a week ago, most of the remediation statistics bandied about in the policy world are outdated and misleading:

Remediation continues to be an incredibly important issue and a major roadblock to higher education success. But this is a field that cries out for better data. We need a better sense of the percentage of students who require remediation…. Even more informed information about the most common concepts that trip students up would be great as well.

The trouble is that college remediation is actually something of a mystery. There’s no common definition of remedial courses. Furthermore, outside of American community colleges, schools don’t really have to provide remediation; they can simply not admit students who aren’t ready for college.

Why don’t they do this? Why do colleges continue to admit “vast numbers of students coming to college unprepared”? Part of the reason is that colleges rather like the rhetoric of remediation. It’s a way to both promote their own high standards (“high school students aren’t prepared for our rigorous courses”) and secure additional funding (‘we shouldn’t pay for this; students should have learned this before they got here”).

Colleges, all across the country and at all levels of selectivity, offer remedial courses. They always have. It’s part of what they do. The proliferation of required remedial courses, particularly in community colleges, actually does seem to be a barrier to degree completion. But let’s stop talking about remediation “posing a major roadblock to… the United States… once again lead[ing] the world in college degrees.”

There are a number of roadblocks to that goal but remediation isn’t a roadblock. It’s just part of the road.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer