College Guide


August 20, 2009 12:33 PM Higher Ed’s Bermuda Triangle

Vast numbers of students enter community college remedial classes every year. Few are ever heard from again.

By Camille Esch

The odds for Thomas-Val’s students are indeed formidable. Only 60 percent of the community college’s 3,000 remedial students pass their classes with a C or higher. Those who go looking for help at Sacramento City will face a mélange of disconnected programs and services. The college’s academic counseling center is badly understaffed, and most of the tutoring available on campus is provided by other students. A recent state initiative provided some extra dollars for remediation, which the college spent adding student tutors and a few instructors here and there, in a process one administrator calls “hodge-podgey.” In such an environment, there are limits to what even a well-meaning professor like Thomas-Val, or her more enterprising students, can do.

Thomas-Val is standing astride what is perhaps the leakiest juncture in the pipeline of American higher education, a pipeline that has unquestionably seen better days. America is losing its lead in higher ed: while other countries are turning out ever increasing numbers of college graduates, the U.S. has stalled. But the problem isn’t just getting high school graduates into college—about 70 percent of them already enroll. It’s getting them to finish it. Only about half of American enrollees leave college with a degree, putting us behind at least ten other developed nations in educational attainment, according to a recent report by the Brookings Institution.

Where exactly we’re losing all of these students is unclear. But the best place to start looking is community college, and specifically those schools’ remediation programs. Nearly half of all students seeking college degrees start at community colleges, and of those, a large percentage—estimates put it around 60 percent—must take remedial classes. Remedial students run a high risk of dropping out and not graduating; one robust study found that only 30 percent complete all of their remedial math coursework, and fewer than one in four remedial students makes it all the way to completing a college degree. Students who need remediation drop out at worse rates than community college students who don’t, and the more remedial classes they need to take, the less likely they are to stay in school.

There’s a chicken-and-the-egg element to this, of course. Getting through two years of college is extremely hard for a student with fifth-grade skills—it may be too much to expect from many of them, even with the best help. So it’s difficult to tell what exactly the grim remedial statistics say: Is the gulf between the students’ abilities and the most basic requirements of college simply too wide? Or are the programs failing?

We don’t know, and therein lies the problem. Community college remediation is the Bermuda Triangle of the higher education system—vast numbers of students enter, and for all intents and purposes disappear. We have almost no hard evidence about what works and what doesn’t in remediation, and almost no one—policymakers, researchers, and administrators—has tried to figure it out in any systematic way. The reason for this is a combination of unjustly scant resources, huge gaps in data, and sometimes a sense of fatalism—or, worse, denial—that keeps state and school leaders from making it a priority. Meanwhile, the situation is likely to get worse before it gets better. Jobs requiring a college education are on the rise, and the labor market continues to pay a premium for college-educated workers. Students who wouldn’t have gone past high school a few decades ago are now heading to college—especially community college—but they’re not remotely prepared.

But this trend also offers real opportunities. Even if community college remediation programs can simply go from terrible outcomes to mediocre ones—if, for instance, the programs were able to meet the needs of even just the top half of remedial students—the aggregate nationwide impact could be an additional 150,000 college graduates per year.The Obama administration is aware of this potential, and is looking to community colleges to help the U.S. out of the economic crisis and meet our longer-term needs for more college graduates. In July, President Obama announced a new America Graduation Initiative that calls for an additional five million community college graduates by 2020.

Meeting this goal is a tall order. But too few policymakers are willing to take the first steps: stop trying to educate the most academically challenged students on the cheap, and insist on community colleges having a stake in whether or not their students succeed. The colleges that have already started to take this kind of responsibility show that such an investment can pay off. If we don’t fix the pipeline where it’s leaking most, even the best-laid plans for revitalizing the workforce with college graduates will amount to little.

Although 6.5 million undergrads attend them, community colleges have long held a marginal position in America’s higher education system. They receive less funding, less media attention, and fewer philanthropic gifts than their four-year cousins, even as they are saddled with the hard, messy job of delivering on the American promise that everyone who wants to should be able to go to college. While K–12 school systems and universities have clear missions, community colleges are simply tasked with doing everything the other systems don’t: getting underprepared students ready for universities, providing job-specific training and certificates, and offering a wide range of basic education for adults—everything from English to word processing to physical education.

Camille Esch directs the California Education Program at the New America foundation, a nonpartisan public policy think tank. This project was done with the assistance of an associate fellowship with Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media.


  • Kendall Morris on September 04, 2009 9:20 PM:

    This is a really interesting article Camille. Nice work! I would love to talk with you about an initiative I'm working on with Social Media Club for higher level education. I think it may be of interest to you.

    Great to see all of your hard work in Mr. Ward's english classes paid off! He'd be happy to see what you are doing now.

  • Philip Daly on September 21, 2009 1:39 AM:

    p>Ms. Esch makes many interesting points in her article, but her conclusions, I'm afraid, are far off base. To suggest that the CA Community College System is somehow primarily a launching pad for four-year institutions is to have taken a very cursory look at the topic you are writing about...many students enter to complete a certificate program, complete a single class for employment skills, etc. and are never entering with the objective of earning an AA degree. To suggest that only 50% of students earning a degree is equal to 50% failure is a gross misrepresentation. A better statistic would have been the percentage of students who complete their initial educational objective while at the college; data which IS kept at Sacramento City College.

    Moreover, while citing the diminished job CA high schools are doing in preparing students for higher ed, Ms. Esch doesn't trace the stats to see why. She suggests that there is resistance to standardized testing at the post-secondary level but fails to acknowledge that the introduction of the "high-stakes" tests in CA's K-12 system has led to reduction in actual performance. For more on this, see Alfie Kohn's: THE CASE AGAINST STANDARDIZED TESTING (Heinemann 2000) From reading this article, one almost gets the impression that Esch has taken standardized testing as the educational panacea it so often gets portrayed as, without researching its actual effectiveness or the history of how it came into play on the National (read NCLB) stage (hint: it started in Texas!)

    Finally, I can say from experience that MANY of my former students went to CA Community Colleges directly from the same types of "low-income" backgrounds that Esch describes in the article. Several had the same types of linguistic and mathematical challenges upon arrival, and I cannot think of a single one who did not go on to achieve their educational objectives there. While I agree wholeheartedly with Esch's analysis of the funding discrepancies between CA's community college and 4-yr. institutions, in these times, the CC's are doing even more with even less. The may not be the Stanford of Esch's own academic pedigree, but these schools are hardly a "Bermuda Triangle!"

  • Joe on September 22, 2009 1:13 PM:

    I'll be honest. I'm 23. I'm a product of the California public school system who left California for college and grad school, and I have hundreds, if not literally thousands, of friends and acquaintances who've gone through California's community colleges, Cal States, and UCs.

    I have some bad news for you.

    The vast majority of California community college students?

    They're really. F#@!ing. Dumb.

    We're not talking 'disadvantaged minds yearning to learn if you show them the possibilities' here.

    We're talking dumb as rocks.

    Not only that, they are *aggressively* dumb.

    There is no sense of shame. No sense of missed possibilities and opportunities to be made up for. It's "This is boring, I'm not interested, when can I get the hell out of here and hit the bar with my friends?"

    Their parents, usually, aren't affluent. But life at home is workable. There usually isn't a struggle to put food on the table. There's zero sense that life is offering them a challenge they need to rise to.

    I had plenty of friends in high school who couldn't go to college because they lacked the grades and were poorly motivated, but then straightened themselves up for community college.

    What they found when they got there was a system that was mind-numbingly easy. Straight A's every semester, no questions asked. An easy-peasy pathway into one of the UCs when it came time to transfer.

    They were bowled over both by how easy it all was, and the fact that the mouth-breathers around them still seemed challenged by the content.

    The problem doesn't stop once you transfer to a UC, either.

    One of my friends transferred from community college to UCSB... and found the student body and the ease of the coursework was almost equally bad there.

    In a quiz for his Latin American history class, having forgotten the answer to one of the questions about 70s Brazilian Presidents, he scribbled in "Sean Connery" for fun and turned in the test.

    The next day, an e-mail from the teacher was waiting for him in his inbox; report to my office immediately. He expected he'd be chewed out for goofing off a bit with an exam question he couldn't answer. Instead, he was accused of plagiarism; the students sitting around him knew that he was one of the rare few who actually did the class readings, and had copied his 'Sean Connery' answer (along with all his others) without a second thought. This story is neither uncommon nor exceptional among my peers.

    Seriously, the problem here isn't a lack of funding for remedial ed.

    The problem is that as a society we've morphed into a combo of a declining Rome and the movie Idiocracy's dystopian future.

    The California community college system works absolutely fine for any student who actually gives a damn. The vast majority of them don't.

  • Micah on September 23, 2009 7:27 PM:

    I see nowhere in Ms. Esch's article that she presents standardized testing as a panacea. She also argues for measuring colleges based on students' performance toward their educational goals as does Mr. Daly.

    A less defensive reading of the article would probably have produced a more constructive response. Though the comment is valuable in that it displays the sort of defensive attitude that Ms. Esch reports on in the article. If Mr. Daly cannot think of a single student who did not achieve their educational objectives at a community college, then he clearly has no experience with community colleges and his comments should be disregarded entirely. Not a single student? Think harder.

  • David on September 29, 2009 8:22 PM:

    Thank you, Micah. I thought for a moment that Philip Daly was commenting on a different article. Yes, many community college students are not there to pursue a four year degree. The colleges also offer vocational and technical programs that provide (or at least have in the past) solid skills to move into jobs where a college degree is not necessary. This dual role of community colleges is great for students and can benefit the community.

    But there are also risks associated with this dual role. It makes it easy for someone like Philip Daly, along with a lot of CC administrators, to assert that everything is fine by assuming that the students who don't successfully go on to a four-year college weren't really attending with that intention anyway.

    There are risks for students, too. Although some community college students are eligible for university admission and choose the CC for convenience and cost reasons, many are not. These students were typically not on the college track in high school, or attended high school long ago. They might aspire to a college degree without fully understanding what is involved (think of media depictions of college students - how often are they portrayed as actually studying, as opposed to partying?). So there's a tendency for students to just kind of wander through some courses without a plan. And no, Joe, they aren't all aggressively dumb. They're more like I was when I got my first beater of a car and it broke down. Sure, I felt kind of dumb standing there with the hood open and holding a screwdriver, but it was more a case of good intentions, but no clue as to how to proceed. I suspect that a lot of students are in a similar situation with academics.

    It is notoriously hard to determine success if it isn't clear what goal you are trying to achieve. That's true of students, and it's also true of the colleges. It seems to me that putting some resources and effort into defining or clarifying goals would benefit both students and the colleges. There are solid vocational programs that don't require college-level writing skills, for example. Making an effort to interact with new students to help them set realistic goals helps them succeed, and could reduce the burden on remediation programs in the process.

  • robin on October 06, 2009 10:02 AM:

    If students are Coming In with 5th grade abilities, it is not the fault of the higher education system. They should not have gotten their high-school diploma in the first place. It is the job of K-12 to ensure that people are actually literate and understand the basic concepts of math, science, geography and history.
    The value of a high-school diploma has fallen because it no longer guarantees the person is able to read, so employers have looked at other credentials. In consequence, more people go to college in order to get credentials which 'prove' their literacy. Many of those people don't want to be at college nor should they be. Colleges, naturally, have responded by increasingly lowering their standards to combat their drop-out rate (and if a cynic to keep the money). But they will never be able to drop their standards low enough, nor should they.

  • Ray Radlein on October 08, 2009 4:40 PM:

    I have taught remedial classes in the community/technical college system in South Carolina where lesson one on day one was "how to add two (positive!) numbers together" — arguably as remedial a start as it is possible to get in a post-secondary education environment — and saw none of what is described in this article.

    My students were attentive and motivated, and from that standing start, most were able to perform basic algebra by the end of the course. Not all passed, of course, but there were far more As then Fs, more Bs than Ds, and none of the students dropped out during the class; and even the low-performing students exhibited more mastery of the subject at the end than they did at the beginning.