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USACollegeChat Podcast

May 26, 2016

Back in Episode 71, we talked about the nightmare of remedial courses required of too many incoming college freshmen. We spoke of remedial courses—or the so-called “developmental sequences”—as a purgatory from which many students never escape. That is, they never escape into actual college credit courses. We spoke about who teaches those courses and the fact that remedial course instructors are often not the full-time professors at a college, the ones who are the most invested in that college and its students. We spoke about the money that is spent and the credits that cannot be earned for remedial courses. Much of our data for that episode came from a study of community college students. Well, this episode also offers statistics about remedial course takers that, I think, will surprise some of you. It might also make you think twice about college decisions you and your child are making, if your child will need remedial coursework in college, as many evidently do.

1. The Report

The statistics that are coming out of a recent study are so surprising that the Editorial Board of The New York Times published its own opinion on May 10, 2016, entitled “Guess Who’s Taking Remedial Classes,” maybe giving you a clue about the surprise.

The recent study was commissioned by Education Post, a nonprofit communications organization working to improve public education. The study was carried out by Education Reform Now, a nonprofit progressive education policy think tank.  The report, which was published in April, is well worth reading. It runs just about 10 pages and is full of easy-to-read charts and graphs. The report is entitled Out of Pocket: The High Cost of Inadequate High Schools and High School Student Achievement on College Affordability and is co-authored by Mary Nguyen Barry and Michael Dannenberg.

Let’s take a look at the main points in the Executive Summary of the report:

Contrary to common belief, remedial education is a widespread phenomenon not at all confined to low-income students or community colleges. It affects a broad swath of students, including those from middle-, upper-middle, and high-income families, as well as a broad swath of colleges.

In 2011, over half a million rising college freshmen—approximately one in four students entering college the fall after high school graduation—had to enroll in remedial coursework during their first year of enrollment in an institution of higher education.

Of those half million students, nearly half—45 percent—came from middle, upper-middle, and high-income families ($48,000–$113,000 and above).

Likewise, nearly half—43 percent—of remedial students were enrolled in public four-year colleges and private nonprofit and for-profit two- and four-year colleges. Only 57 percent were enrolled in public community colleges.” (quoted from the report)

So, if you think that remedial classes are where low-income kids from not-great urban high schools hang out once they go to a local community college, you are wrong—perhaps about half the time anyway.

On average across all institutions, underprepared students report taking two remedial courses each during their first year. There is a stark difference, however, at private nonprofit four-year colleges. There, remedial students from the top 20 percent of national family incomes report taking one more developmental class than students from the bottom 20 percent of national family incomes: 2.7 vs. 1.6 classes. In other words, the data and indicated gap challenge conventional ideas about whom remedial education serves and the extent of K-12 underperformance across income levels. (quoted from the report)

The fact that these higher-income students take more remedial courses than lower-income students does make one wonder if at least some private colleges are enrolling higher-income kids who are not as accomplished (but who can pay the bill) as the lower-income kids they are also enrolling. This is a serious concern that has been voiced by a number of researchers who have been looking at how fair admissions practices are for lower-income kids.

Underprepared students from families in the top income quintile (incomes above $113,440) that attended private nonprofit four-year colleges spent on average over $12,000 extra to study content they should have learned in high school. Overall, across all income levels and institutions of higher education, more than a half million recent high school graduates and their families spent on average an extra $3,000 and borrowed an extra $750 for college to study content and skills they should have learned in high school.

The aggregate additional, direct college expenses these half million students and families had to pay out of pocket for remedial coursework in the first year in 2011-12 was nearly $1.5 billion. Heightened student loan burden associated with first-year remedial coursework was over $380 million. That’s to say nothing of additional taxpayer costs associated with those courses.” (quoted from the report)

The report explains that these costs are not just for tuition, but rather include living expenses and other costs associated with having to take these extra courses before starting actual college courses. The report authors feel that this is a more accurate picture of what remedial courses really cost families. But, any way you count it, an enormous amount of money is being spent on remediation. And these data are from 2011. I don’t think the situation has gotten better.

As a layperson, you have to say that something looks very wrong with this picture—whether it’s colleges with unreasonable standards or high schools not doing the job they should or high schools inflating grades to get more kids to graduate or to get more kids into college or more and more kids going to college when years ago they might have chosen a different path.

Maybe all the talk of researchers and high school educators about “college readiness” in the past few years will eventually have an effect. I don’t think that we, as a society, can afford for it to be just talk.

Private nonprofit and for-profit colleges are increasingly a bad bet for students underprepared for college-level work. Because of much higher tuition and net prices, students who must initially take remedial coursework pay and borrow much more at private colleges than they would have had they attended a public four-year or two-year college: net tuition expenses at private colleges are three times higher than those at public four-year colleges and over 10 times higher than those at community colleges. Ultimately, while private colleges represent only 11 percent of the total first-time freshmen remedial population, they account for over three times as much remedial course-associated student and parent loan debt.” (quoted from the report)

So, this is seriously too bad, but understandable. It is one more thing that parents and seniors are going to have to put into the college decision-making equation. If your child needs remedial work in college, then that is one more reason to consider only public colleges, whether they are four-year colleges or two-year colleges. Obviously, the cheapest route through necessary remediation is two-year community colleges, perhaps with a later transfer to a four-year public or private college once the remediation issues have been resolved. However, as we have said in recent episodes of USACollegeChat, we are increasingly worried about the dismal transfer rate out of community colleges into four-year colleges, so families run that devastating risk in choosing the cheapest remedial option.

We hate to put “needed remediation” on our deal breakers list—that is, the list of things about a college that parents or seniors would insist on a college’s having or not having before making the application. (For the complete list of deal breakers to date, see our book, How To Find the Right College: A Workbook for Parents of High School Students, available through Amazon.) But, I can see how a parent, who is already worried about how to pay for four years of college, would put his or her foot down and refuse to pay the higher cost of remediation at a private college.

In addition to remedial course costs, students who were not adequately prepared in high school are also more likely to delay college completion—or drop out all together. First-time full-time bachelor’s degree-seeking students who take a developmental education course in the first year after high school graduation are 74 percent more likely to drop out of college than first-time full-time non-remedial students. First-time full-time associate’s degree-seeking students who take a remedial course in the first year after high school graduation are 12 percent more likely to drop out than first-time full-time non-remedial students.

Even among those that do graduate, first-time full-time bachelor first-year remedial students take 11 months longer and first-time full-time associate first-year remedial students take 6 months longer to complete than non-remedial students. That represents time they are not working and earning as much as they otherwise could with a postsecondary degree.” (quoted from the report)

And this, my friends, might be the worst of it, and we have talked about this previously on USACollegeChat. Many students never bounce back from a stint in remediation—either they drop out and don’t graduate at all or they don’t graduate on time, meaning more money being spent and more time being wasted. And this goes for students from families with really good incomes and from high schools that families supposed were really good.

2. The Impact

So, why are we spending so much time talking about college remedial courses? Well, if you believe the data from this report, it’s because one in four new college freshmen are requiring some remediation in college and because those students come from diverse family and high school backgrounds—far more diverse than you probably thought. These data indicate that college remediation is something that many new college freshmen are having to embrace—too many, in the view of most people, I imagine.

Parents, if I were you and if I had a child starting into high school now, I would ask the high school principal or superintendent to tell me what percent of graduates from the high school and from the school district are having to take remedial courses in college. If they don’t know that statistic, they certainly should. If they don’t know that statistic, you should insist that they find out and tell you and all of the other parents.

Students, if you were my child, I would be making very sure that your English and math skills were improving every year of high school and that you took challenging courses in both fields. I would make sure you were reading and writing routinely every week. I would be reading what you were writing for school assignments to satisfy myself about the quality of your writing. Perhaps far more important than having your parents hire tutors for SAT prep would be having your parents hire tutors to make sure that you don’t fall behind in English and math skills. Those tutors are likely not the same.

Because, kids, college remedial courses are the last thing you want to have to take. The courses are not likely to be very good, and the results are not likely to be much better. You have to work to solve any skills problems you have in high school. I am not kidding. In the long run, that could make all the difference.

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