Do Remedial College Classes Need Reform? In Virginia, Probably Not

Percentage of students enrolled in remedial classes at Virginia community colleges, 2016-17 academic year.

How do you handle a situation when a student is admitted to a college but isn’t academically prepared to do the work? Traditionally, colleges and community colleges have required students who fail basic readiness tests to take remedial courses. Nationally, students spend an estimated $7 billion a year on such courses, according to the Wall Street Journal.

But educational officials are souring on the practice, saying that remedial classes are typically taught by the least-experienced teachers with little training in remedial teaching methods, that student motivation is low in classes that yield no college credit, and that remedial students graduate with six years at a lower rate than their peers. Colleges in California, Colorado, Indiana, Tennessee and West Virginia are experimenting with an alternative approach, teaching supplementary classes targeting specific skills needed to pass specific classes. Thus, a student taking a sociology class who needs help with statistics would learn only the math applicable for that class.

It will be interesting to see where this experiment goes. I’ve long expressed concern that many colleges, desperate to pump up enrollment and tuition revenue, are too lax with the admittance standards. Under the guise of ethnic and socioeconomic diversity, they accept students who aren’t academically prepared for college. These students are disproportionately likely to fail to graduate and rack up large student debts that hobble them financially for years. Thus, for many, higher ed has become a source of social injustice rather than liberation.

Virginia colleges and universities are often accused of being excessively picky about who they admit, with the consequence that they provide less “social mobility” for poor and minority students. The flip side of that accusation is that the Virginia higher-ed system has the second highest six-year graduation rate in the country, meaning that fewer poor and minority students wind up saddled with debt they cannot repay because they failed to win the workforce credential needed to get a higher-paying job.

Perhaps the idea of teaching targeted skills required for specific courses has merit. Let’s face it, we all learned a lot of stuff in college that we never needed later in life. Speaking for myself, I barely passed a course in calculus, and, beyond retaining the fact that there is such a thing as “differential” calculus and such as thing as “integral” calculus, I remember nothing of what I supposedly learned. Maybe remedial classes teach a lot of stuff that students will never need.

On the other hand, I worry that replacing remedial classes with “basic skills” represents one more step in the watering down of college curricula, and one more step in the degradation of the value of a college degree. Businesses already complain that many college graduates are incapable of thinking critically and communicating clearly as it is. Will scrapping remedial courses make things better? I’m not holding my breath.

According to Virginia Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) data, only one of Virginia’s four-year institutions, Virginia Commonwealth University, provides remedial education, and VCU enrolled only 68 undergraduate students in remedial classes in the 2016-17 school year. By contrast, the community colleges enrolled 36,000. That strikes me as entirely sensible. If students need remedial work, they should get it in a community-college setting where they will incur far less cost than in a four-year college.

For what it’s worth, the number of remedial students in Virginia community colleges is down from 44,400 ten years ago. Either Virginia high schools are graduating fewer students who are academically unprepared or the community colleges are relaxing their standards. I pass no judgment as to which is the case. Either way, remedial education does not appear to be a burning issue in Virginia’s higher education establishment at the moment.

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5 responses to “Do Remedial College Classes Need Reform? In Virginia, Probably Not

  1. Well.. as some have pointed out – I have atrocious grammar and writing skills AND rant and rave if that were not bad enough!

    And I am one of those folks who showed up at College that needed remedial help – and so.. folks can see.. that remediation was not exactly effective!

    I blame this on the fact that I was a service brat and we moved every 2-3 years and back then different schools were not teaching standardized curricula such that when one moved they picked up where they left off.

    Today – kids of the poor have that same problem when Mom and Dad move or break up and/or the kids go to Grandma or Auntie who live elsewhere in a different school district.

    but the real issue is what do you do with kids who did not finish K-12 fully literate?

    Should it be the job of the Colleges ?

    Should there be a rule that if you cannot meet minimum standards – you cannot enroll in college and must return to your local K-12 to get fixed?

    Should Community Colleges get tasked to do it – with taxpayer funding?

    Or should we just give up and automatically enroll them in entitlement programs or wait until they get in trouble and send them to prison to be “rehabilitated”?

    • What Virginia does — make students who must do remedial work take the classes in community college — makes the most sense to me. We need to have a mechanism whereby people can catch up and learn what they should have learned in high school. But that shouldn’t be the four-year colleges.

      • Geeze, another miracle! Jim B and I AGREE!

        but who should pay for that?

        students/parents, local schools or Virginia taxpayers?

        Also – que Cranky… is there data that shows on a per high school or school district basis – – not how many graduated.. or dropped out but how many that ended up having to get remedial training?

        In other words – whether they “graduated” or not – versus – they did graduate…did try to go to college – and then got identified as not having a sufficient high school education?

        And ONE MORE THING – I am .. MORE than FINE with non-public schools getting in this game – even with tax dollars – as long as they also are required to provide metric data like the public schools are – and are held accountable..

        I asked a teacher friend the other day what the rules were for a kid to be homeschooled… you should do a blog post on that.. it’s pitiful and sooner or later in most cases – these kids come back to public school..

        • If the cost of remedial courses were required to be paid from the affected students’ local school district when that district gave the student a passing grade in the subject needing remediation, we might not need many other measurements of, and controls over, K-12 schools. The plan should cover colleges/universities, community colleges, trade and vocational schools, military training and formal apprentice/on-the-job training programs.

          I would not require payment in situations where the receiving institution did not require a remedial course, but the student elected to review a subject or voluntarily retake a course.

  2. Remedial courses at the collegiate level simply reminds me that secondary education through high school and the legion of options post-high-school are all one continuum. They should not be funded in such radically discontinuous ways [free; followed by, families expected to go deeply in hock]; few employers today think high school alone is adequate preparation. But in addition to more logical funding continuity, allowing admission to unqualified applicants –simply because they have the ability to keep on borrowing while they hang around the campus until they can “remedy” themselves enough to barely get by in the classroom — is not only a gross financial disservice to them, but also degrades the educational opportunity for the rest of the class. What about the rest of the class? And, what about holding the secondary schools the unqualified applicants came from accountable?

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