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 and Bruce Vandal
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.
Both are eagerly anticipated and extensively covered by the news media – particularly during spring months. Both contain key indicators necessary for informed, high-stakes decisions that affect the nation’s economy. But that’s where the similarities end.
The Digest of Education Statistics is an indispensable handbook for education analysts around the country, with detailed information on everything from elementary school enrollments to postsecondary institutions' revenue sources. Unfortunately the data are not very current or granular. While graduation season for 2010-11 is coming to a close at most institutions around the country, the latest national data for the aggregate number of students earning degrees are from 2008-9 -- two full years ago.
In contrast, the auto sales report shows sales by manufacturer and car models monthly. This week we learn that auto sales fell in May for the first time in eight months due to a combination of high gas prices and a shortage of fuel-efficient models created by Japan’s record earthquake. Industry-wide sales fell 3.7 percent to 1.06 million vehicles sold in May, down from 1.1 million a year earlier. The Japanese car shortage benefited Chrysler, which enjoyed a 10 percent increase in sales.
These are the kinds of data carmakers look at constantly to help make decisions about production volume, plant closings (or openings), and pricing. Policymakers are also looking at this data to see whether the bailout of the auto industry was worth the price tag, and whether tax incentives and mileage regulations are changing the mix of models sold in the U.S.
Similar data on bachelor's and associate degrees awarded, or engineering and music degrees, are nearly two years old. So what do we know about the kind of short-term credentials students turned to in response to the nose-diving economy? Or about which states and institutions stepped up their game to meet the ambitious goal President Obama set to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020? Not much.
Further, there is an important debate right now between those who see higher education's mission primarily as preparing graduates for jobs and economic success, and others who worry about the erosion of general education in today's colleges and universities. Tracking the number of jobs created each month as the economy recovers serves as a starting point for talking about the quality of those jobs -- are they temporary jobs, low-paid service-sector jobs, highly skilled professional jobs, jobs in new businesses or old industries?
We should be having a similar national conversation about our college graduates. Wouldn't it be nice to know whether or not there have been any recent changes, perhaps as a result of the economy or of external pressures on colleges, in the mix of vocationally oriented and broader liberal arts degrees awarded around the country?
Granted, college graduates are not cars, and industrial analogies to higher education often ring hollow. But aren’t they much more important? While higher education represents an increasing share of students’ budgets and of the American economy, and is a linchpin to job creation, we’re largely navigating in the dark. New governors and legislators are trying to get their bearings and figure out how to meet ambitious goals with the scarce resources available. A new Congress is starting to talk about whether we can afford Pell grants as we currently know them. And they’re having those conversations with two-year-old data. Imagine setting national policy for the car industry based on GM sales in June 2009. Something needs to change.
Reliable Estimates Are Possible in the Current System
As a former state-level official who was responsible for getting this kind of data out in Florida, I understand some of the reasons for the delay in reporting college completion data. The university system I worked for could be only as fast and as accurate as its slowest and least accurate member.
So imagine the situation of the federal National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), where instead of the 11 universities we had to worry about, they have 7,000. As I write this, someone at NCES or one of its contractors is still trying to figure out how a new beauty school in Alaska managed to award 50 nuclear engineering doctorates last year -- or something similarly strange.
But that size is also an advantage. If Florida State University didn’t report reliable numbers, the accuracy of any state-level report would be severely compromised. If Florida State doesn’t report to NCES, on the other hand, it’s a rounding error. And the Florida States of the world rarely cause problems -- it’s the rural community college that just lost its lone institutional researcher, or the new beauty school in Alaska that doesn’t yet have one.
Releasing Data Earlier Is Possible
Reporting more current college completion data is possible. Here’s how. NCES collects data on degrees awarded once a year. The deadline for 2009-10 completions was last October 28. By early February, preliminary numbers are available for institutional researchers’ use, but the final numbers are released in the summer, a full year after the prior year’s students have actually graduated.
The preliminary numbers available in February have proven to be a reliable estimate. In my experience, there is usually very little difference between the totals that can be calculated with the preliminary data and what eventually comes out several months later. In fact, reliable estimates for the nation and for most states could probably be reported as early as November or December, based on “early returns” from the fall survey. While that’s still a few months after the peak of graduation season, it’s gaining nearly two years of valuable time and information.
Reporting more current college completion data is worth doing. Some states recognize this and make every effort to get data out early. Kentucky, for example, recently reported that public and private credentials awarded in that state are up 11 percent in 2010-11, largely at the associate and certificate level. Such timely reporting is noteworthy – and rare. But even precocious data gatherers like Kentucky will find their numbers hard to interpret without knowing whether the trend in other states is up 15 percent or down 3 percent. And it will remain a strictly local news story, timed differently in every state, rather than an occasion for national reflection on the state of higher education. By contrast, consider the healthy competition for business and jobs under way among governors. When new unemployment numbers come out weekly, governors aren't just looking at their own states, they’re measuring themselves against their neighbors and against the nation as a whole.
The timely national release of top-line completion numbers would put a day on the calendar to spark a recurring national discussion about how we’re doing across state lines and relative to one another and to our ambitious goals. We can imagine states and colleges themselves vying to be among the top-performing institutions and using it in their marketing and recruitment efforts. The competition for new jobs is fierce among states, and a number of governors have tried using tax policy to poach business from other states. Wouldn’t it be nice to see similar competition based on recent state trends in numbers of highly skilled graduates?
Complete College Completion Data
In addition to being more timely, it’s important for college completion data to be more comprehensive. Most states have good data on their public institutions’ graduates well before NCES releases national numbers, but information on private colleges (both nonprofit and for-profit) is spotty. And yet none of the big attainment goals set by states, the White House, or the Lumina Foundation for Education can be achieved unless private higher education contributes a big share of the needed graduates.
Making good strategic higher education decisions at the state level requires analysis of both public and private institution data. Perhaps a steep drop in nursing graduates at public colleges is spurring discussion of financial incentives to graduate more RNs. But if nursing degrees at private institutions are booming, that may not seem such a wise use of public funds. And if the trend is the same at private colleges, then perhaps the incentives should be available there as well.
As our state and federal elected officials continue making difficult policy and budget choices, we should hope that they are doing so based on data that are current and that bring to the surface trends in higher education that can guide informed, effective budgeting and policy making. If we can generate detailed auto sales data monthly, unemployment claims weekly, and stock market updates by the second, we should be able to produce college completion data sooner than two years after the fact.
Nate Johnson served as executive director of planning and analysis for the State University System of Florida and as associate director of institutional research at the University of Florida. He is currently a senior consultant for HCM Strategists, a health and education public policy and advocacy firm.