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Commentary: College remediation is not just a problem for those ‘other’ kids

Tracy Dell’Angela | April 6, 2016



unnamedThis is college acceptance season, the weeks when millions of high school seniors pore over their offers and agonize about which campus offers the best fit and the best financing. The real pressure is off, the essays and test scores a distant memory.

Until you consider the results of a new study that revealed this:

More than half a million college freshmen—approximately one in four students who enter college the fall after high school graduation—had to enroll in remedial coursework during their first year of college, costing their families nearly $1.5 billion annually.

My bet is a lot of parents read these kind of reports about struggling students and education problems and think: That’s a bummer, but that’s someone else’s problem.

That someone else being, um,  low-income families or kids of color? Students in chaotic urban schools or remote rural schools? Or maybe new immigrants or students with disabilities? All those students not “cut out” for four-year-colleges?

Pick your “other,” but the problem is not about you or your kid, not about anyone comfortably striving or hailing from the honor roll of all those so-called good high schools, right?

Wrong, in this particular case.

Some 45 percent of those students came from middle- and upper-income families, according to “Out of Pocket: The High Cost of Inadequate High Schools and High School Student Achievement on College Affordability,” a new research report written by Education Reform Now and sponsored by Education Post.

Not only does college remediation cut across all income levels, it’s also not a problem confined to community colleges. Nearly half – 40 percent – of remedial students were enrolled in public and private four-year colleges.

While underprepared students average two remedial courses each during their first year, higher-income students at private four-year colleges take more remedial classes than lower-income students at those same colleges, suggesting these schools enroll many lower-achieving but higher-income students.

Which means this: If your kid attends an expensive private university but isn’t ready to write college papers or pass a college math class, you will be paying an extra $12,000 for material he or she should have learned in high school.

Out of Pocket comes on the heels of another gloomy report that hints at widespread problems in high school preparation.  The Education Trust, a D.C.-based advocacy organization, found that almost 70 percent of high school graduatedo NOT complete a “college-ready” course of study, a set of classes typically required for entry at many public colleges—like Algebra 2, foreign languages, chemistry and physics. The study, Meandering Toward Graduation, was based on an analysis of a representative sample of high school transcripts from 2013 graduates.  (High schools aren’t preparing students for career tracks, either, with only a fraction taking the kind of health, technology or business courses that would pave a path for job training.)

The problem is not just that students get low grades (below a C+) and never master the material. It’s that more than half never even enroll in the classes needed for college readiness.

As one author states:

“Our findings suggest that high schools have prioritized credit accrual necessary for graduation over knowledge and skill development that would prepare students for life after graduation,” said Marni Bromberg, senior research associate at Ed Trust and co-author of the report.

So, we’ve got students who aspire to college, but aren’t being challenged in high school with the kind of courses that make that a realistic option.

And we’ve got a nation of parents who desperately want to believe that remediation is something that happens to other people’s children, despite a base of research and organizations that have sought to shine a spotlight on and seek solutions to this crisis.

Beyond the very real cost of spending unnecessary tuition money on non-credit-earning courses, we know students struggle mightily with the stigma of landing in these classes –and that stigma doesn’t disappear just because you give remedial classes a gentler label like Developmental English, Algebra Review or Intro to College Writing.

At best, college freshmen who land in remedial courses take a year longer to graduate. At worst, they never graduate at all. As the report confirmed, college freshmen taking remedial classes in four-year colleges are 74 percent less likely to graduate than non-remedial students.

So they come home to lick their wounds. They have lost face, lost money and lost momentum—one short year after proudly showing off their new college sweatshirts to their high school friends.

It’s happening in my town, and all over the country, in places you would never suspect. And it seems like no one really wants to talk about why it’s happening, because these kids graduated with good grades from “good schools” in well-funded middle class neighborhoods that love to boast of high college admission rates.

These are our kids. This is our problem.


Tracy Dell’Angela is managing editor at Education Post and formerly a longtime education journalist at the Chicago Tribune. This article was published in partnership with Education Post.

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