The school on a hill.
The marble columns, wood paneled studies and ivy encrusted gardens.
It’s never really been a place for everybody. But in rhapsodizing the college experience, our lawmakers have pushed for universities to enroll an increasing number of students. The demand for free or reduced tuition – especially for low-income students – has meant more kids putting on a letterman jersey and giving it the ol’ college try.
Teenagers who wouldn’t dream of higher education in previous decades are going for it today.
And the result has been a greater proportion of incoming college freshman taking remedial courses before they can even begin the normal post-secondary track.
According to a 2017 report by the Hechinger Report, more than half a million students at two- and four-year colleges in 44 states had to take such courses.
This costs up to an estimated $7 billion a year.
So, as usual in our country, we’re looking for someone to blame. And look! Here’s our favorite scapegoat – the public school system!
The gripe goes like this: Incoming college freshman wouldn’t need remediation if the public schools had bothered to teach them correctly!
However, the argument ignores several important factors and jumps to a completely unearned conclusion.
1) Public schools don’t decide who is accepted at colleges. College admissions departments do.
If people in higher learning think all these teenagers don’t belong in college, don’t accept them. Period.
But that would mean fewer students, less tuition and forgoing the lucrative revenue stream provided by – surprise! – these same remediation courses!
We pretend that colleges are special places where honor and scholarship rule the day. It isn’t necessarily so.
They are run by people, and like anywhere else, those people can be ethical and egalitarian or petty and materialistic.
Colleges aren’t immune to small mindedness or the economic realities facing institutions of learning everywhere.
Like most schools, they’re starved for funding.
The state and federal government have slashed subsidies to colleges and universities just as they have to public schools. Colleges have to make up the shortfall somewhere.
So they enroll students who don’t meet their own academic standards and then charge them for the privilege of attempting to get up to snuff.
It’s a good deal. You get to blame kids coming in AND reap the rewards.
2) How exactly do we determine that these kids need remediation?
In many schools, they use standardized tests like the SAT or ACT to make this determination. Others give their own pretest to all incoming freshman and assign remediation based on the results.
You’d expect more from institutions of higher learning.
You’d expect them to know how inadequate standardized tests are at assessing student knowledge. After all, most of the mountain of studies that conclude these tests are worthless are conducted at the college level. However, it seems people in admissions don’t always read the scholarly work of their colleagues in the departments of education and psychology.
I remember when I was in college, several classmates were being pressured to take remedial courses but refused. It didn’t stop them from graduating with honors.
3) Let’s say some of this remediation actually is necessary. Why would that be so?
These are high school graduates. What has changed in public schools over the past few decades to increase the need for these additional services at colleges?
It seems to me the answer is three-fold:
1) School budgets have been cut to the bare bone
2) Schools have to fight for limited funding with charter and voucher institutions
3) Standardized testing and Common Core have been dominating the curriculum.
If you cut funding to schools, they won’t be able to prepare students as well.
That’s a pretty simple axiom. I know business-minded number crunchers will extol the virtue of “doing more with less” and other such self-help platitudes, but much of it is nonsense.
You never hear them explain how cutting CEO salaries will mean corporations will run more effectively. It’s only workers and schools that they think deserve tough love and penury.
Look, schools with less funding mean fewer teachers. That means larger class sizes. That means it’s more difficult to learn – especially for students who don’t already come from privileged backgrounds.
None of this is bettered by the addition of charter and voucher schools sucking up the limited money available. We don’t have enough for one school system – yet we’re asking two or more parallel systems to exist on that same amount. And we’re stacking the deck in favor of privatized systems by prioritizing their funding and not holding them to the same accountability and transparency standards as traditional public schools.
It’s like deliberately placing leeches on a runners back and wondering why she’s started going so slowly.
Moreover, it’s ironic that the Common Core revolution was conducted to make students “college and career ready.” It has done just the opposite.
Narrowing the curriculum to weeks and months of test prep has consequences. You can increase students ability to jump through the hoops of your one federally mandated state test. But that doesn’t translate to other assessments. It doesn’t mean they’ll do better on the SAT or other college entrance exams. Nor does it mean they’ll possess the authentic learning we pretend we’re after in the first place.
The bottom line: if we really want to improve student academic outcomes in public schools, we need to fully and equitably fund them. We need to abandon school privatization schemes and fully support public schools. And we need to stop the obsession with standardized assessments, curriculum and – yes – even canned standards, themselves.
That might actually reduce the numbers of students who allegedly need remediation at the college level.
However, there is another aspect that we need to consider that is harder to remedy…
4) Developmental psychology.
Schools – whether they be post-secondary, secondary or primary – are built to meet the needs of human beings. And human beings don’t grow according to a preconceived schedule.
Just because you think someone should be able to do X at a certain age, doesn’t mean they’re developmentally ready to do so.
Speaking from experience, I was a C student in math through high school. It wasn’t until I got to college that I started to excel in that subject and earned top marks.
I didn’t have to take any remedial courses, but I was forced to take a quantitative reasoning course as part of my liberal arts majors.
I’m not alone in this. Many people aren’t cognitively ready for certain concepts and skills until later. That doesn’t make them deficient in any way nor does it betray any problems in their schooling.
That’s just how their brains work. We can whine about it or we can accept human nature and do what we can to help students cope.
And this brings me to my final reason behind the college remediation trend – a problem that is more insidious than all the others combined.
5) The elitism behind the whole post-secondary system.
For centuries, higher learning has been seen as a privilege of the wealthy and the upper class. Sure a few exceptional plebians were let into our hallowed halls just to “prove” how egalitarian we were.
But college was never seen as something fit for everyone.
As such, the attitude has always been that students are on their own. Many who enroll will not end up graduating. And that’s seen as perfectly acceptable. It’s part of the design.
It’s the baby sea turtle school of education – thousands of hatchlings but few survive to adulthood.
However, if you really want to make college the right fit for an increasing number of students, you have to get rid of the elitist attitude.
If students come to college and need remediation, stop whining and provide it.
And it shouldn’t incur an extra cost from students, either. This should just be a normal part of the process.
If a patient comes to the emergency room with heart disease, you don’t penalize him because he didn’t eat heart healthy. You do what you can to help him heal. Period.
That’s how colleges and universities need to approach their students.
You know – the way public schools already do.
In summary, it’s not a case of colleges vs. public schools. And anyone who tells you differently probably has a hidden agenda – the standardization and privatization industry, for instance.
We need to support colleges and universities. We need to support public schools. Both need additional funding and political will.
However, colleges need to become more accepting and supportive of the students enrolled there. They need to meet them where they are and provide whatever they need to succeed.
Moreover, public schools need the autonomy and respect routinely given to college professors.
The answer is a transformation of BOTH institutions.
That’s how you make a better school system for everyone.
That or we could just keep grumbling at each other, forever pointing fingers instead of working together to find solutions.
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15 thoughts on “College Remediation is Less About Bad Students Than Academic Elitism”
Hey Steven, I can think of one more reason for remedial course demand; credit recovery. It has been the nationwide fraud that has driven national graduation rates from 70% to almost 90% in a decade; even after increasing graduation requirements. The graduation rates actually went down from 1973 to 2009 from 73% to 69%. Then the miracle of online credit recovery happened.
Good point, Tom. If you follow the money, you often find the truth. I know you’re especially good at it. Keep up the great work, Brother!
The first question I would ask is if universities might expect that high school graduates are functionally literate. Is that the case?
Teaching economist, if you have an opinion you want to express, please do so. I’m not about to relitigate the entire article. You seem to be implying the exact position I am refuting here.
I was trying to get some data first.
My university does not control it’s admission criteria, the state legislature does. When I first began teaching, any high school graduate was automatically admitted to the university. That changed to automatically admitting anyone who had achieved a C average over a set of academic classes. Some high school graduates do not take all of the required academic classes and other high school graduates take the classes but are not able to obtain the C average, so are not automatically admitted.
Do you think this change is part of the elitist mindset of universities or a reasonable change meant to protect the student from making the significant commitment of time and treasure to an endeavor that appears to be hopeless?
Teaching Economist, I find it difficult to believe your university has no control over its own admissions criteria. But giving you the benefit of the doubt, so what? That puts you in a better position than the public schools. I teach some children who earn less than a C average – kids who in some cases didn’t even take the previous course. I teach kids with severe emotional disturbances, kids whose parents have literally been murdered in front of them, kids who were beaten and starved, kids who have never met their parents because they’re in jail, kids who live with the daily reality of gun and gang violence. You deal. You do your best to teach the kids in front of you. You meet them where they are. I’m not saying we shouldn’t do more to help kids before they reach the college level (in your case) or middle school (in my case). I’m saying that such change won’t help the kids in our classes now. All we can do is help them succeed to the best of our ability. And any attitude to the contrary is somewhat elitist.
It is fairly common for state universities to have admission policies determined at the state level. Here is a link to a list of the states with statewide standards and the the agency that determines those standards: http://ecs.force.com/mbdata/MBquest3RTA?Rep=SA1701 . Community colleges are often required to admit anyone with a high school degree. Remediation is most common at schools like these where admission standards are set outside the university or college. Schools with more competitive admissions do not admit students who require remedial courses (unless perhaps they are athletes).
I think the increase in remedial classes does not stem so much from a loss of resources in K-12 education as the increase in the percentage of students enrolling in higher education. In 1973, about 33% of all 18 or 19 year olds in the US were enrolled in college. In 2016 a bit more than 50% of all 18 or 19 year olds were enrolled. A good portion of that increase comes from the less academically able students who would not have enrolled in college forty years ago. (data from here: https://www.census.gov/data/tables/time-series/demo/school-enrollment/cps-historical-time-series.html)
One important difference between K-12 and post secondary school attendance is the cost to the student of attending a post secondary school, both in direct monetary costs and indirect opportunity costs. The financial gain from attending college goes overwhelmingly to college graduates. If a student has very little chance of graduating, I think it is unethical to admit them in the first place.
Teaching Economist, are you saying that your school has no control over admission policies or that some admission policies are determined by the state? Does your school admit more students and lower its standards to get more state and/or federal subsidies? That happens a lot. It’s not usually a matter of being told what to do and that’s it – except at community colleges.
I agree that increased college enrollment has an impact on this situation. But for an economist you are suspiciously ignoring the impact of funding on both the college, secondary and elementary level.
Finally, it is unfair to enroll students who will not be able to graduate. That’s part of my point. (You’ll note I also site the prospect of financial gain for colleges by providing these remedial services). We need to provide the proper supports so that these students can and will graduate. As a college professor, that’s partially your responsibility. To be sure, you should have the proper resources to make this happen. However, the first change must be your attitude. You need to own these students and vow to do everything you can to help them – not wish for the golden days when they were not your problem.
Yes, I am saying that. The chancellor of my university has no power to raise or lower admission standards for any reason. This is fairly common at state universities.
In a discussion of remedial college classes I think it is a large mistake not to talk about community colleges. That is where most of the remedial classes are taught. The figure I have seen (but am unable to track down) is that 20% of students in four year colleges and universities take at least one remedial class, but 60% of students at community colleges take at least one remedial class.
I did not talk about financial incentives because you did not leave that out. I talked about the changes in the characteristics of students desiring to go to college because you left that out of your list. I am glad that you think it important.
I do, however, think that you overestimate the financial gain of admitting ill prepared students to a university. Ill prepared students are more costly to teach and require more institutional support than do well prepared students. They also reduce the metrics by which we are judged by the outside world: quality of admitted students, first year retention rates, four and six year graduation rates, etc. Neither the faculty nor the administration is interested in admitting more ill-prepared students. Both wish to move in the other direction.
Finally, we are teaching them. The mathematics department at my university has hired a staff and designed a curriculum exclusively for students who are ill prepared to do mathematics at the college level. These classes are exceptionally small, extremely hands on, and is the largest high school mathematics program in the state.
Good news. I tracked down some authoritative data on the rate of remedial courses taken at 2 year colleges vs 4 year colleges. According to this NCES publication (https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2016/2016405.pdf), 68% of students at 2 year colleges take one remedial class and 47.9% of students take 2 or more remedial classes. At 4 year colleges and universities, 39.6% of students take one remedial class and 20.7% take 2 or more remedial classes. Clearly community colleges are important for this discussion.
It is also true that schools with the least control over admission requirements are the schools that have the highest percentage of students taking remedial classes. This is inconsistent with the idea that schools choose to enroll unqualified students in order to get increased revenue. If the institution can choose it’s students, the institution tends to choose students who do not need remedial classes.
You’re assuming that admissions officers at community colleges and 2-year colleges wish to do otherwise.That has not been proven. These institutions have always had more permissive enrollment policies. One might argue that that is why they exist.
It saddens me that you look to drown the argument in details while ignoring the central fact – you prefer post-secondary elitism to egalitarianism. Certainly the current system needs reform, but it is not impossible to do so. You, however, would rather go back to the way things were – the school on the hill, robust, pristine, exclusionary.
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