Remedial education in higher education has become a target for reformers. Lawmakers in Florida have made remedial classes in math, reading and English optional for students entering community colleges in fall 2014. The placement tests to assess these skills will be optional as well.
Meantime, Tennessee and Connecticut have passed legislation making it easier for students to bypass remediation and enroll directly in courses that lead to graduation and completion of a major. And California State University has lowered its math and English placement test cutoff scores, requiring fewer students to do remedial coursework.
Roughly 60 percent of the 6.5 million students who enter the nation’s 1,200 community colleges enroll in remedial classes. More than half of them quit before finishing.
The states’ move away from remediation reflects growing skepticism toward its effectiveness as a graduation aid. Researchers from the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College, for example, found that unprepared students who enroll in remedial classes are no more likely to persist toward a degree than unprepared students who don’t take them. While other research suggests that remedial work may benefit extremely low-skilled students, colleges can’t force students to finish the coursework successfully.
Proponents of the reforms say they want to help students save money and earn college credits earlier, worthy goals at a time when student debt is mounting and colleges and universities are under pressure to graduate more students.
But a “one size fits all” approach to the problem – making remedial courses optional, for example -- is likely to fail. Researchers point out that studies on the effectiveness of remedial work predominantly focus on students who came close to passing placement exams. They judge kids who score abysmally on the tests as too different from college-ready students for inclusion in the studies. That remedial coursework may not benefit a subgroup of students is not a solid justification for eliminating it.
So before putting remedial work on an optional footing, or abandoning it altogether, there are innovative approaches worth trying to improve students’ college readiness and graduation rates.
One approach is to create accelerated learning programs, sometimes referred to as mainstreaming. These can assume many forms, but typically they integrate low- and high-performing students in remedial classes. For example, students are placed in a small math or English seminar while taking general education classes for credit. This approach has been found most effective for the higher-performing students. It avoids labeling particular students as deficient, thereby reducing the risk of stigmatizing students who already face barriers to social equality.
And it builds on the well-supported research finding that students learn how to complete college-level work by doing college-level work.
The success of mainstreaming depends on the quality and accessibility of support services. Small seminars and tutoring, for example, best supplement college-level instruction. A stand-alone support center is less helpful. A big benefit of mainstreaming is that the progress students achieve in developing their English and/or math skills improves their chances of success in regular college courses.
But tutoring and other learning supports have to be integrated with existing curricula and be flexible enough to help students with varying levels of underpreparedness. Tennessee’s Austin Peay State University, for example, eliminated remedial math, put students in college-level math instead and offered workshops that gave them extra-individualized help based on their initial assessments. One result is that twice the number of students passed the first level of general education math than in previous cohorts.
Institutions such as Kingsborough Community College in New York have pursued another approach by creating learning communities. These come in various shapes depending on students’ math and English skill levels. Some mix low- and higher-performing students; others are made up only of students who score low on placement tests. All such programs involve collaboration among remedial and general-education instructors, which includes the development of an integrated curriculums and opportunities for additional student support such as advising.
Research has shown that learning communities positively affect student outcomes. A study of Kingsborough’s program, for example, compared students enrolled in a learning community with traditional remedial-course takers and found that the former took more regular courses on average, passed more of them and earned more credits toward a degree.
But these kinds of interventions don’t just cost money. It takes time to design and implement what are essentially customized programs for subpopulations of students. While innovative strategies such as that adopted by Kingsborough show solid promise, the broader challenge is to identify what interventions work, how many resources need to be allocated to the project, and how to get faculty, administrators, counselors and students on board with reform efforts. That kind of expertise is crucial to making innovations travel.
Is maintaining a role for remedial education worth it? It’s unglamorous work, attempts to improve it frequently encounter bureaucratic resistance, and the research on its effectiveness is mixed.
But shutting down remedial programs without first trying out alternatives, as challenging as that is, will harm students who need the most help, especially those who graduate from low-performing, high-poverty high schools. Channeling these unprepared students into college coursework without providing them with an academic safety net is no formula for higher completion rates.
William G. Tierney is professor of higher education and the director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California. Julie C. Duncheon is a USC Provost’s Ph.D. fellow.