The laments about America’s higher education system are long and loud: tuitions are too high, colleges are increasingly hard to get into, classes aren’t available, and students aren’t learning anything. Most believe that more can be done to reduce spending by getting rid of things that aren’t a necessity. And remedial education -- the ‘catch-up’ work now required for the nearly 40 percent of students who come to college lacking basic skills needed to succeed -- is a prime candidate for elimination on almost everybody’s list.
College leaders say that high school teachers, not professors, should make sure students are meeting basic standards. State legislators say they shouldn’t have to pay twice to educate students. And everyone admits that remedial education is not working, with just 25 percent of community college students who receive it going on to complete a college credential. Recognizing that increasing college attainment is a linchpin in creating more jobs and growing the economy, what to do about remedial education is an issue that would benefit from clear thinking. Here are five powerful myths shared by policy makers and educators alike that clearly hinder our pursuit of college success.
Myth 1: Remedial Education is K-12’s problem
As the last stop before college, the obvious culprit for our remedial education problem is our nation’s high schools, right? After all, K-12 graduation standards are not rigorous enough or aligned with the college-ready standards set by state colleges and universities. If high schools would merely adopt those college-ready standards, the problem would be solved.
Now try this: Google college-ready standards for your local college. Did you find them? No? That’s because they don’t exist. College students may meet the college admission standards, but when they get to college, they are asked to take placement exams to determine if they are ready for college-level courses. Many are told they don’t have the skills they need to be successful and must take one or more remedial education courses. Because colleges have not clearly articulated the skills that students must possess to be college-ready, students are blindsided when they are placed into remedial courses, and high schools don’t have a clear benchmark for preparing students for success. Higher education can no longer kick the can down the road to K-12. The two must share accountability for student results.
Setting college-ready standards is not an easy proposition, but one simple solution would be for each state to set a universal cut score that would fully exempt students from remedial education. Both the ACT and the SAT have suggested cut scores that are aligned with data they have collected illustrating the likelihood of success in college-level courses. States should simply adopt these cut scores.
Myth 2: Remedial Education is a Short-Term Problem
Because of the prevalent view that remedial education is a temporary problem that the new common core high school standards will solve, educators and policy makers approach remedial education through largely stopgap measures built on part-time and temporary staff and coursework that doesn’t give students the skill-building they need.
Even if every high school graduate were college-ready, we would still need to have remedial education. The reason: students enter college from a variety of circumstances, including laid-off workers in need of retraining, working adults returning to college to upgrade their credentials to get better jobs, or former dropouts coming back to finish a degree. Because a majority of states are projecting declines in the number of new high school graduates, colleges will have to do even more to attract older adults back into college with an on-ramp that is convenient and customizable. Many of these nontraditional students will require refresher courses in math and English, and others will need to develop new knowledge and skills.
With so many adults returning to higher education, remedial education must be transformed to meet their needs. Institutions should provide a wide range of options for students based on their competency, recognizing that many don’t have time for semesterlong courses. Self-study options that use courseware, low-cost refresher sessions, tailored curriculum and simply mainstreaming students who are just below the cut score into college-level courses are just a few of the options that will work well with the full range of students in remedial education.
Myth 3: Colleges Effectively Determine College Readiness
Recent research from the Community College Research Center  found that the placement tests students take do not provide a precise diagnosis of student skill deficiencies. The exams were intended to be a general predictor of success in college-level courses, not to identify which skills students are lacking. Unfortunately, many campuses are misusing these placement exams as crude diagnostic tools by setting arbitrary scores to determine if a student is placed in one, two or three levels of remedial education courses. Consequently, students are often placed in one or more semesters of remedial courses that may or may not be addressing their specific skill deficiencies. Even worse, research done in the Virginia Community College System  suggests that many students placed in remedial education are perfectly capable of succeeding in college-level work without remediation.
One simple solution would be for institutions to use other available factors, like high school G.P.A., along with the placement exam to assess student readiness. High school G.P.A. is a good proxy for student motivation and academic skills. In addition, both ACT’s COMPASS and the College Board’s Accuplacer have diagnostic and other assessments that pinpoint student deficiencies and measure factors like student motivation.
Myth 4: Remedial Education is Bankrupting the System
One of the most prevalent myths is that remedial education is a major cause of the college cost crisis, forcing institutions to spend precious dollars on getting students up to speed. The thinking is that once the remedial educational problem is solved, institutions will be able to reap major savings that can be reallocated elsewhere.
Remedial education is actually inexpensive for the colleges – because institutions don’t use regular faculty for the courses, and the technology required is cheap. A study by the Board of Regents in Ohio  -- one of the few states that actually have cost data for remedial education -- found that although 38 percent of incoming freshmen were taking remedial coursework. This translated to only 5 percent of actual full-time students, and around 3.6 percent of undergraduate instructional costs. That doesn’t mean remedial education is cost-effective for states or students who waste their time and money on something that’s not working. But the financial incentives are all in the wrong direction, rewarding institutions for cycling students through, rather than completing a degree.
To solve this problem, we need to change funding for remediation, remove incentives for institutions to use it as a cash cow, and fund institutions both on the number of students needing remediation and their rates of success in persistence and degree or certificate completion.
Myth 5: Maybe Some Students are Just Not College Material
The most insidious of myths is the notion that some students may not be college material. After all, as this myth goes, students who are not college-ready may not possess the motivation, interest and wherewithal to succeed. These students should just learn a trade and move on. This ignores the reality that some postsecondary education is the ticket to the middle class, and that many students go to college to get the knowledge and skills needed to move into a trade. They need to have the basic skills in reading, math and writing to do that, even if they don’t want to go on to get a four-year degree.
One solution would be to set contextualized basic skills instruction within a career certificate or other academic program. Instruction that provides a real-world application ensures that students are receiving instruction they need to be successful in their academic program of choice. Washington’s I-BEST program shows that it also facilitates the completion of a credential.
Moreover, new research by Anthony Carnevale and Stephen J. Rose shows that college has benefits for employers who hire people like cashiers and construction workers, plumbers and police officers. These workers make more money than their non-college educated peers, and contribute more to their organizations by innovating and solving problems. So the benefit goes to the organization and to the individual.
The lack of clear college-ready standards, poor assessment practices, the lack of customized learning options and the cost in time and money to students make it clear that postsecondary institutions are not committed to ensuring the success of millions of students who seek a college credential.
Remedial education is the 800-pound gorilla that stands squarely in the path of our national objective to increase the number of adults with a college degree. If we dispel these myths, the solutions become clear: get higher education to articulate what it means to be college-ready, implement those college-ready standards in high school, fund remedial education programs in ways that reward student success, and customize coursework to meet students’ needs. With a dynamic high school population and more than 42 million Americans between the ages of 18 and 64 earning below a livable wage and in need of basic skills support, these are myths our nation can no longer afford.
Jane V. Wellman is executive director of the Delta Project on Postsecondary Costs, Productivity and Accountability. Bruce Vandal is from the Education Commission of the States, where he directs the Getting Past Go initiative on remedial education reform.