Remedial courses fail to prepare students for college-level work, but the remedial track may serve other purposes, according to a study  newly released by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
The research found that being placed into remediation is not as discouraging for students as conventional wisdom holds. And while remedial courses’ primary effect is as a sorting mechanism for students of differing academic abilities -- rather than as preparation or discouragement -- that purpose shouldn’t be overlooked, according to the researchers.
For example, remedial courses might be cheaper for colleges to offer and could actually benefit students who are unlikely to get far in college, said Judith Scott-Clayton, the study’s co-author and an assistant professor of economics and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College. And the separate remedial track, which is not typically credit-bearing, might also help colleges use their sometimes-limited capacity in credit-bearing courses for those students most likely to succeed in them. Overcrowding is a big problem at many community colleges, like California's cash-strapped system, which will turn away 300,000 students this year.
“Maybe there’s just not enough space,” said Scott-Clayton, who co-wrote the paper with Olga Rodriguez, a graduate student at Teachers College.
The study was based on data on 100,000 first-time, degree-seeking students from six unnamed community colleges in a large, urban system. About 90 percent of students in the system were assigned for remediation in one or more subjects.
Scott-Clayton said the findings suggest any attempt to understand remediation, or to improve it through policy, first requires the “reality check” of acknowledging that most students will not follow the optimal path from remedial courses to college-level work and, eventually, graduation. For example, the average student in this study’s sample stuck around for an average of only three semesters, whether they placed into remedial courses or not.
“An unadvertised but implicit function of remedial assignment may be to signal students about their likelihood of college completion,” which is slim at best, the report said. “It may be efficient to both the student and the institution to realize this and adjust their investments sooner rather than later.”
Given that remedial education operates primarily as a “diversion” mechanism that creates separate tracks for students, the study found that the overarching goal for colleges currently is to “simply maximize learning gains for both remediated and non-remediated students for as long as they remain enrolled.”
And while it’s a sobering fact that so many students fail to move on from remediation, which is viewed as higher education’s black hole, the report suggested that those students “may learn more in their remedial courses than they would have otherwise.” However, more research is needed to determine whether that is the case, according to the study. (NOTE: This paragraph has been altered for clarity.)
Making it Count?
Remediation is a hot topic among higher education reformers. Some, most notably Complete College America, a nonprofit group, view remediation  as a stumbling block for students that policy makers should seek to remove. One approach, recently passed  by Connecticut’s Legislature, with the group’s support and that of the Lumina Foundation, is to eliminate all remedial coursework and to place students with remedial needs into regular, credit-bearing courses, with extra tutoring help.
The new study probably won’t provide new ammunition to critics of remediation. The nuanced findings, which Scott-Clayton described as “agnostic,” do not reveal whether remedial or credit-bearing courses are better for students with academic deficiencies. More research is needed to make that call, she said.
However, Scott-Clayton stressed that there are several reasons to be concerned about remediation.
For starters, an enormous number of students are placing into it, and the courses generally aren’t working. “Remediation does not develop students’ skills sufficiently to increase their rates of college success,” the study found.
Remedial classes represent approximately 10 percent of all coursework at community colleges, according to the researchers’ calculation. That means that at an estimated cost to colleges of $3,200 per new student (meaning all new students), remediation’s total bill is nearly $4 billion per year for the two-year sector alone, the study found.
The paper reinforces research released last year  that found large numbers of students placing into remediation who could have passed credit-bearing courses, which raised questions about the accuracy of popular community college placement tests. That news doesn’t get better in this study, which found that 25 percent of students diverted out of college-level math and up to 70 percent of those diverted out of English actually would have earned a B or better in the relevant, credit-bearing college course.
However, those students, like most of those tracked by the researchers, would have been unlikely to earn a credential whether they placed into remediation or not.
Scott-Clayton said she was surprised by the study’s findings that so few students were discouraged by being assigned to remedial courses. “Assignment to remediation has little influence, either positive or negative, on degree completion, degree/transfer, persistence, dropout or semesters enrolled,” the study found.
However, students who get discouraged are more likely to be those with the lowest predicted risk of dropping out, the study found. That’s obviously a problem.
A major takeaway from the study is that if remediation is not following through on its stated goal of being “developmental education” and preparing students for college-level work, serving instead as a sorting mechanism, the courses may not include the best content. Put simply, if many remedial students are never going to need to do college-level work, maybe the courses should include a focus on skills relevant to their joining the work force.
A practical approach for colleges, Scott-Clayton said, is to figure out how to best serve students who are probably “going to be here for less than an ideal amount of time.”