Remedial Education

Some call it the Bermuda Triangle of higher education. Some see it as a needless expense – double payment for students to attain skills they should have learned in high school. Others praise the programs for opening postsecondary education to students who have been underserved by their local schools.

Though the number of students taking remedial courses – in math, English or reading – has risen sharply in recent years, the percentage of entering freshmen who take remedial courses has grown only slightly, from 34.7 percent in the 2003-04 school year to 36.2 percent in the 2007-08 school year, the last year for which statistics are available.

Over the same period, the number of first-time freshmen increased from 2.6 million in 2003-04 to 2.8 million in 2007-08, pushing the number of students needing remedial courses from 900,000 to more than a million. And the numbers continue to grow.

 Two years ago, the latest year for which statistics are available, the number of incoming freshmen grew to 3.2 million, largely because of a steep climb in for-profit college enrollment and thousands of older students going back to school because of the recession.

Most of those were attending community colleges, where educators have been shunting remedial students for years. Now some community colleges are trying to shift the unprepared students into adult education classes, though they generally aren’t available to students who already have a high school diploma.

“Students (who need remedial education) are struggling to get back to zero,” said former West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise (D) who is now president of the Alliance for Excellent Education. “They’re taking class time for remedial courses while not getting ahead with college-level coursework.”

As the dilemma of remedial students and how to assist them has grown, several national foundations, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Lumina Foundation, have pumped millions into new ways to address the problem.  So far, their efforts have not shown much improvement in student skills.

Meantime, there are horror stories about high school valedictorians having to take remedial courses in college and complaints about the millions of dollars that states must spend to get their incoming freshmen to college-level courses.

According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, states spent about $1.4 billion total on remediation between 2003 and 2008. In addition, the group estimates that if the country graduated all of its high school students college ready, it would save the economy well over $5.5 billion per year.

But a recent study by the testing group ACT found that only 4 percent of African-American and 11 percent of Latino high school graduates meet readiness standards in English, reading, mathematics and science, compared to 31 percent of white high school graduates.

Regardless of race, whether a student needs to take remedial courses in college is the prime indicator of who is likely to complete his or her college program.

An American heritage

Remedial education’s U.S. roots can be traced to Harvard College in the 1600s, when Greek and Latin tutors were employed for unprepared students. Land-grant universities, established in the 1700s and drawing from a larger pool or prospective students, instituted preparatory courses for students weak in reading, writing and arithmetic skills.

 In the early 20th century, more than half of the students enrolling at Princeton, Yale, Harvard and Columbia universities did not meet entrance requirements and were placed in remedial courses.

More recently, most public school systems have adopted a college preparation model, offering intense college-oriented curricula for students and advanced courses for top students.

Of course, historically, only the top high school students went to college. The others didn’t really need to because there were plenty of good American jobs that required no more than a high school diploma.

Now, Anthony Carnevale, head of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, predicts that 63 percent of American jobs will require at least some college by 2018, and 23 percent of jobs will require at least a bachelor’s degree. In contrast, in 1973 only 28 percent of American jobs required at least some college and just 9 percent required a bachelor’s degree.

The mismatch

There are many theories about what causes the mismatch between what high school graduates have learned and what they need to know to do college work.  Some blame less-than-rigorous high school academics; a tendency to let high school seniors slide through their final year; some students’ delay in entering college and older students who return in their twenties or thirties for a college certificate.

In a June 2010 report released by the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) and the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, educators and policymakers focused on the mismatch and found that graduating from high school is no longer the same as being ready for college. The study found that part of the fault for the increased need for remediation is a lack of communication and partnership between those in control of K-12 education, and those in control of post secondary education.

The report also addressed the problem of college completion and blamed the low percentage of college freshmen who complete their degrees on the poor preparation they received prior to entering college.

Jane Neuburger, president of the National Association for Developmental Education, noted that there is a significant need to improve developmental education in the United States.

 There is also a need to focus on remedial course pathways that accelerate and contextualize course skills, Neuburger said. This would allow students to take more than one developmental course (in a sequence) within a semester. Overall, Neuburger noted, there needs to be a national agenda that is focusing on college completion while also trying to maintain a focus on access.

Alexander Astin, former director of the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, has long asserted that the number of students needing remediation is vastly underreported – that colleges undercount to protect their ratings in national surveys, which are based partly on “student quality.”

Astin also has argued that there is no common standard skill or knowledge set for determining which students need remediation.  Each school makes such decisions independently, producing a relative and arbitrary system.

What to do?

Despite all the recent hand-wringing over remedial education, only lately have education experts turned their attention to why students need remediation and how best to help them.  

To help take some of the stress of remedial education off of colleges, high schools are taking their own steps to help solve the problem of remediation for students entering college.

The brief from the SRLB states, “It is not well known that many high school students who fulfill all the college preparatory requirements likewise arrive at state colleges and universities unprepared. That is, a college prep curriculum is necessary but not sufficient to ensure college readiness.”

The brief also calls for state colleges to be more accountable to their states for what they are or are not producing in terms of graduation rates.

In the meantime, educators are trying to spread the word that placement tests are a part of entering college, and are having students take similar tests while they are still in high school as a way to determine what skills they may be lacking.

“The bottom line is that better information and opportunities for students to prepare for placement exams, whether it is while they are still in high school, or right after they enroll in college, can significantly reduce remediation rates,” said Bruce Vandal, director of the Postsecondary Education and Workforce Development Institute for the Education Commission of the States.

At most colleges, when students enroll at the particular institution, they are asked to complete a placement test like COMPASS, offered by the ACT (formerly known as American College Testing) or Accuplacer, run by the College Board. Both help educators quickly evaluate incoming students’ skill levels. The results are used to place students in the appropriate courses.

Depending on how students perform on their placement test, they may be able to enroll in college-level math or English courses – or they might be required to take some level of remedial courses.

 “Students assume that if they took college prep curriculum coursework in high school that will be good enough,” said Vandal. “Unfortunately, many students who take a college prep curriculum in high school still get placed in remedial courses because they do poorly on the placement test.”

Seeking a solution

To close the gap between a high school diploma and college readiness, the Obama administration has championed the Common Core State Standards Initiative, a state-led effort being coordinated by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). The standards, adopted by 44 states and the District of Columbia, were developed in collaboration with school administrators, teachers and experts to provide a clear and consistent framework to prepare children for college and joining the workforce.

According to proponents, the standards are aligned with college and workforce expectations; are clear, consistent and understandable; include rigorous content and application of knowledge through high-order skills; build upon some of the strengths and shortcomings of current state standards; are based on existing evidence; and are informed by other top performing countries, so that all students are better prepared for a global economy and society after graduation.

Building on the core standards, which they have adopted, Florida and California have begun new measures to alleviate the gap between diplomas and college readiness by allowing students to take the college placement test as early as 11th grade. Students who are assessed as not college ready can take additional high school courses to address their academic needs. “Students can then retake the placement test after they have completed the courses to determine if their results have improved – California has found out that this approach has significantly reduced the percent of high school students that need remediation,” Vandal said.

Florida has aligned its state standards with college entrance standards for community colleges and many of their four-year institutions.

The state also has developed the Postsecondary Education Readiness Test (PERT) that is given to all students in the 11th grade. It is the same test used to assess students for developmental education when they enter a college in Florida. As a result, the tests are able to assess whether students are “college ready” while they are still in high school. Students who score below college ready on the PERT test must take courses in high school to address their academic needs.

Some colleges are determined to improve their own assessment processes. “Refresher courses” are provided to students at some colleges, often free of charge, to help students prepare for the placement exam. Other campuses have computer labs where students can take a pre-test, which then selects any needed review materials a student may need based on the test results.  

Remediation vs. completion

Still, a very low percentage of students who must take remedial courses ever complete college level courses in math or English, much less earn a college credential. One of the main reasons remedial education students do not succeed is that the remedial education process of assessing, placing and delivering instruction takes too much time and students simply drop out of the system, according to Vandal.

On the other hand, Neuburger of the National Association for Developmental Education contends that the prospect of remedial courses should not scare students away from postsecondary pursuits.  “If you can’t get what you need in high school in terms of being “college-ready,” take those courses at college.  This is your second chance,” Neuburger said.

“The best bet for anyone considering college right out of high school is to take difficult courses right through senior year.”

One program that aims to help students in college remedial education make it to college completion is Achieving the Dream, a national initiative of the Lumina Foundation for Education and other organizations and philanthropies. The initiative helps community colleges learn how to collect and analyze student performance data in order to build a sort of “culture of evidence” – in other words, a culture in which colleges routinely use evidence to develop institution-wide reform strategies that are aimed at helping students succeed academically.

Currently, there are about 130 community college participating.

A five-year study of the first 26 colleges to join Achieving the Dream – covering 2004 through the spring of 2009 — unfortunately, found that the initiative has had a limited impact.

Gates Foundation

So far, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has contributed more than $100 million to  improve the effectiveness of remedial programs and ameliorate the need for them, including contributing more than $16 million to the Achieving the Dream initiative.

The Gates foundation has also invested about $1.75 million to expand Washington’s I-BEST program, which combines basic academic courses and career skills classes to put learning in a useful context and ensure that the least-prepared students not only complete college, but are competitive in the workforce when they graduate. Evaluations of the program suggest that students who participate are nearly four times as likely to earn a college credential or degree as students not enrolled in the program.

The foundation has also contributed about $2.7 million to the Academy for College Excellence (ACE) at Cabrillo Community College, a program that is designed to bridge the gap in education for young adults who are not typically encouraged to aim for college. Since being founded in 2002, the program has helped more than 675 at-risk students transition into Cabrillo College’s regular college-level courses.

A 2009 study of the program at California’s Cabrillo Community College showed significant positive effects for participation in both the accelerated and non-accelerated versions of the Academy. In addition, participation in the program is correlated with better outcomes on most measures for students. ACE students are, however, very likely to be more at-risk than are other Cabrillo students with similar levels of academic preparation.

Students in the program had more credits earned than those not in the program, and also had a higher persistence rate than other students. Students in the ACE group are also more likely to pass a transfer-level English course than other students are.

The Gates Foundation has also invested in the City University of New York (CUNY). CUNY’s new program will include intensive pre-college support to prepare students for the college experience; the merge of remedial and credit coursework to help students maintain momentum throughout their course of study; and more focused course options that guide students toward graduation and subsequent employment.

60 by 2025

The Lumina Foundation is spearheading a national effort to increase the proportion of Americans with high-quality degrees and credentials to 60 percent by 2025. Improving remedial education is a key to that.

Many of the most recent innovations in remedial education have concentrated on reducing the time students spend in remedial classes. In addition, Vandal, of the Education Commission of the States, said, most students should be able to complete their remediation in less than one academic year, and ideally in one semester.

To decrease the time students spend in remediation, colleges are:

  • Implementing more precise diagnostic assessments that pinpoint student deficiencies. This allows the college to customize delivery of remedial education to address only the skills that students need help with. As a result, students may avoid semester-long classes if they need only three or four weeks to address only their unique remediation need.
  • Customizing computerized instruction so students can focus more narrowly on their academic deficiencies. Students can move as quickly or deliberately as they need through their unique course of study. When a student has mastered one module, he or she can move immediately to the next module.  
  • Allowing students to move through multiple modules in a semester – often completing in one semester what used to take two or more semesters to finish. This system also works for students who need more time. If students complete only half of the content of the course during a semester, they do not have to go back to square one the next semester. They start with the module where they left off.  Vandal said that the result of this system is that all students can reduce the overall amount of time they spend in remediation.
  • Enrolling students just below the college-ready level directly enroll in college level courses, but giving them additional academic support by enrolling them in the remedial course at the same time. The student is given support for the college level course as part of the remedial course they are taking. 

Helping the lowest performers

Despite the sizeable need to reduce remedial education in the United States, budget cuts that are being implemented by many states and institutions loom as possible roadblocks.

Remedial education, according to Vandal of the Education Commission of the States, is by and large low-cost when compared with the expenses of offering other college-level courses.  When schools see a need to offer remedial courses, they typically use lower-paid junior, or adjunct, faculty. But this doesn’t always result in the best remedial instruction.

Until recently, there has not been a significant amount of data collected and studies completed on effective models of remedial instruction.

Now, there is a growing field for developing and improving instruction – including new PhD programs on teaching remedial education at two Texas universities, Sam Houston and Texas State.  Grambling State University also has a EdD program in remedial teaching.

At the same time, the place for remediation is changing: many states are offering remedial courses only at community colleges, where the cost of instruction is even cheaper.  The colleges, in turn, are adapting the ways they treat remedial students.

Many community colleges – most of which have open admission policies – are considering limiting access to remedial education to students who have some minimum academic skills. 

Colleges refer to setting a “floor” for access to remedial education– meaning that students who take the placement exam must achieve a minimum score to be able to take remedial courses.  The argument is that data indicate that students who test at the lowest academic levels – typically at a sixth grade reading level or lower – have a much lower chance of ever earning a degree than students who test at a higher level.  The colleges believe it is not a wise financial decision, for both the students and the colleges, to deliver remedial education to students at the lowest level. 

Instead, institutions are trying to encourage students to enroll in Adult Basic Education, or other basic skills programs, to get to the level at which they qualify for college level remedial courses. But since post-secondary education institutions rarely align their efforts with basic skills providers, there is no guarantee that students who are referred to these options will actually complete coursework there and go on to college.

Despite this method showing great promise, the approach is also controversial.

 “There are no proven models on how to best serve students who perform at the lowest levels on college placement exams,” Vandal said.

An initiative called Accelerating Opportunity, launched last month in 11 states, is working to align adult basic education classes with college readiness expectations. The project is being managed by Boston-based Jobs for the Future and is supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Joyce Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Kresge Foundation and the Open Society Foundations. The initiative is designed to develop models that will move students from adult basic education directly into college-level courses.


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