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The High Cost of College Remediation

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Remedial courses are intended to provide an academic leg up to students who come to college lacking the academic skills they need to survive in higher education. But the courses can be expensive, costing colleges across the nation an estimated $1 billion a year. And students don't get academic credit for remedial coursework, which can lengthen the time it takes for them to earn a degree and start a career.

So are remedial courses worth all that expense and time? Possibly not, according to a new study that's in the publishing pipeline.

Paco Martorell of the RAND Corp. and Isaac McFarlin Jr. of the University of Texas at Dallas analyzed data on 454,000 Texas students who entered two- and four-year colleges in the 1990s, and who took Texas Academic Skills Program tests. Those are the tests that the state's colleges and universities use to determine which students will be required to take remedial courses.

The researchers compared the academic and earnings trajectories for students who just barely passed the exam with those who just barely failed. In a lot of ways, they found, the remedial courses didn't seem to help much. The students required to take them were only slightly more likely than the barely-passing students to complete a college degree, to transfer to a four-year college if they started out in a two-year school, or to be earning more money seven years after starting college. The differences were not statistically significant, according to the study.

Here is what the authors say are some possible implications of their findings: One is that the state could have set its passing scores too low or too high. Another is that students at the passing margin just might not benefit from remediation.

And here's a caveat: We're just talking about Texas here. Although it's a diverse, populous state, studies in other states, such as Ohio, have come to different, more positive conclusions.

Martorell presented the findings last month at the annual meeting of the Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness in Washington. I can't provide a link but look for his report soon—in academic time, that is—in a journal near you.

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Having taught several developmental composition courses at a community college, I can affirm that remediation often retools a student from someone who is totally unprepared for college, into a student who recognizes when his/her writing needs improvement. As colleagues will agree, that alone, is a major step forward. I have also had high school graduates who despite ability, lack motivation.

A developmental year often gives kids the moment of confidence their high school or home did not offer, and they soar. Any student who emerges from remedial classes able to plunge into learning with eagerness is a boost to our society and one less person whose frustration may lead to poverty or a less than productive life. We cannot waste the potential of any child when we are given the opportunity to transform them into an able student.

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