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The Controversy Over Remedial Courses

With more and more high-school students being warned that their future is bleak without a college degree, it's not surprising that enrollment in remedial courses rose to 2.7 million in the 2011-12 academic year from 1.04 million in 1999-2000 ("Remedial Courses in College Stir Questions Over Cost, Effectiveness," The Wall Street Journal, Nov. 18). Yet instead of concern that high schools are not preparing students to do college-level work, particularly in math and English, the Education Department regards these courses as a major barrier to college completion.

In place of remedial courses, the department wants placement to be determined by high-school grades, basing its view on studies concluding that for most students remediation either has no effect on the odds of earning a college degree or certificate, or actually hurts their chances.  I've written often before that I do not believe college is for everyone.  I'm talking now primarily about a bachelor's degree.  Community college is a different story.  Students there can earn an associate's degree or a certificate.  If students are enrolled for the latter, then I agree that high-school grades are probably sufficient for placement.  But if they are enrolled for the former, with the intention of transferring to earn a bachelor's degree, then I think we are doing them a disservice.

Every college and university offering a bachelor's degree that I know of requires passing an English composition course. Because high schools differ so widely in their grading standards, a policy that relies on how well students did in high-school English composition runs the risk of setting them up for failure in college composition.  I've read examples of what purport to be college-level essays.  Too many of them hardly qualify by any stretch of the imagination. For readers who think that is an exaggeration, I urge them to read what "Professor X," who teaches English 101, wrote more than six years ago ("In the Basement of the Ivory Tower," The Atlantic, Jun. 2008).

Yet the Education Department is obsessed with boosting the number of students with a degree. All this does is undermine the value of the degree and give its holders a false sense of their ability.  It's a travesty that is nothing less than a scandal. 

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