Remedial classes do not correlate with success

Via Joanne Jacobs, we have a grim, but perhaps unsurprising, report on the prospects for students taking remedial classes in college:

An Ohio Board of Regents study of students who were freshmen in 1998 found that, by 2004, students who needed remedial classes were only one-third as likely to have a bachelor’s degree as those who didn’t need such classes.

Fifteen percent of remedial students had bachelor’s degrees, compared with 47 percent of nonremedial students.

The report also points out that "about 38 percent of incoming freshmen at Ohio public colleges and universities take remedial courses." Thirty-eight percent — more than one in three!

When you’ve got over one-third of your students entering college needing remediation in subjects that are supposed to be taught, and learned, in high school, you’ve got one of two things happening. One possibility is that you have a large number of non-traditional students — so-called "adult" learners (although if you’re older than 18, you’re an adult) who return to college after a long time away from school, and all the stuff they learned (perhaps perfectly well) in high school has decayed away. I’ve had a small but increasing number of these kinds of students — one over the summer in calculus whose last math class was an algebra class taken 30 years ago! And he really needed remediation badly, to the extent that I just couldn’t patch all the holes in his background by myself. I really wonder whether the traditional system of remediation — that is, to take classes and more classes — really helps these folks, since they are often juggling families and jobs along with school. The prospect of taking, say, a year of remedial math just to get to the point where you can begin a major will be too much.

But the other possibility is that you have students coming out of high school who either didn’t take the requisite subjects they need for college, or else they took the classes but were socially promoted out of them without learning anything. In my experience, this option is a lot more common than the first. And when you couple this phenomenon with the following mindset:

"We’d all love it if we didn’t need remedial classes," [a remedial math prof] said. "But we’re not living in a perfect world. Everyone deserves the opportunity to go on to college and pursue their dream of higher education. We have to provide all the services for members of our community so they can be successful in their academic choices."

…then you have students coming out of high school with no skill in the prerequisite college subjects, no preparation for the academic work of college, but full of a sense of entitlement that they are somehow owed a college education. The above quote is symptomatic of an attitude that, frankly, is killing higher education slowly. Yes, everyone deserves an opportunity. And they have that opportunity: it’s called doing well in high school. We have to stop expecting colleges and universities to provide second, third, etc. chances to learn basic subjects that ought to be learned in high school by the students who have just been there.

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Filed under Education, Higher ed, Life in academia, Teaching

7 responses to “Remedial classes do not correlate with success

  1. The saddest thing is that I know of at least one large research university where remedial courses have become the math department’s cash cow courses, with their highest enrollments.

  2. Amen. It’s really scary, isn’t it?

  3. Jami

    I have to disagree with you on this post. I understand your concern for teaching remedial classes and how it takes away from a better college education. However, if the problem is in high schools and we take away those remedial classes, then how are those students supposed to get that education? Even if they dont go on to finish college, at least they were given the chance. I dont see what harm the remedial classes are doing.

    It seems to me that if we have this attitude about remedial classes in college, then we might as well get rid of remedial classes in high school. I just dont think it is fair to our education system to get rid of the remedial classes. My first math class in college was a calc prep class, and it helped me tremendously.

    I guess maybe I just need a better reason to get rid of these. I dont see your argument clearly. Just because a student did not do well in high school math does not mean they should not have the opportunity to go to college.

  4. chris

    Despite her use of a triple-negative in a sentence (sorry James, couldn’t help it), I have to agree with Jami. I guess I don’t fully understand your approach to this problem. There is a lot of work going on right now to get students to understand the importance of doing well in high school, and how it will affect their college careers. Many of them are working hard, but in some subjects it may not be enough. We all have stong points and weak points and I have seen some brilliant students come and go through this school who will admitedly need remediation when they get to college. Does that make them any less brilliant? Or more to the point, does that make them any less worthy of a college education? Coming from a college professor, I’m a hard time wrapping my head around your attitude on this topic, which appears to border on cynicism. Cutting out remediation will lead to just intellectual snobbery it seems. Is there no middle ground here?

  5. Jami

    After reading my comment (and Chris’) I had to clarify one thing…

    “Yes, everyone deserves an opportunity. And they have that opportunity: it’s called doing well in high school. We have to stop expecting colleges and universities to provide second, third, etc. chances to learn basic subjects that ought to be learned in high school by the students who have just been there.”

    This sentence is what really bothers me and it is pretty disapointing to hear this from a professor. I dont know everything about your education philosophy, but this statement should be coming from a snobby political professor, not from you. Do you really care about educating people, or just about educating the ones who are smart enough to make it?

    If colleges and universities are not going to provide those 2nd and 3rd chances, then who will?! How can you say that just because a student did not do well in high school math (or any subject) that means they should just give up and forget about college? How can you blame a student for a bad high school education? I was told many, many times by people I looked up to at Franklin that smart people sometimes make stupid decisions. So even though a percentage of those students needing remediation arent going to make it regardless, there is still a percentage that will make it, and they will make it solely because they had that 2nd or 3rd chance. Sometimes I think you are way too negative about education. Lets not forget about the positive things. Ok now i’m rambling…

  6. Eric

    I think there is a big difference between remediation taking place in a small liberal arts college setting as opposed to a major state university. In a small liberal arts college, remedial classes are taught (in part) by people with Ph.D.s. In many respects, this is an extreme waste of a valuable resource. It is like having a seminary educated minister spending a majority of his/her time teaching Sunday School for 1st and 2nd graders. A majority of the minister’s training and expertise is being wasted doing a job which could very adequately be performed by a lay person or pastoral intern. The problem is that for a number of reasons small liberal arts colleges typically don’t have access to a teaching workforce where the teachers have less than a Ph.D. or M.A. (much of this is due to accreditation pressures). On the other hand, a major state university has access to an almost bottomless supply of cheap but reasonably qualified educational labor in the form of graduate students. In this case, offering a number of remedial courses makes much more sense. Professors are able to teach the non-remedial undergraduate courses, as well as graduate courses. And, heaven forbid, are able to pursue research interestss. From an educational perspective, their time can be spent developing the students that have enough solid background to be able to appreciate their insights.

    Basically, I don’t have too much of a problem with remedial classes when taught at a major university. Some high schools are academically broken…I’ve seen some of the results in remedial math classes that I’ve taught. However, in a liberal arts college setting, offering a lot of remedial classes in seems to require a mismanagment of resources (e.g. Ph.D.s teaching high school algebra).

  7. Good comment action going on here. Just a few quick points in response:
    (1) There are a number of layers of higher ed that fit between high school and a four-year college that provide good access to remediation. Community colleges are the most prominent. Online for-profits like University of Phoenix are catching up fast, particularly with the older-adult demographic I mentioned. There are lots of places to get the remediation you need, if you need it, before going to a four-year college.

    (1a) In particular, I think there’s a really good business opportunity for an entrepenurial-minded person who can start a for-profit organization that specializes in offering those courses typically thought of as remedial, doing so in a flexible format and has enough academic rigor that the major universities take note. Just like Best Buy has the “Geek Squad” to handle tech support, this business would have contracts with 4-year colleges to handle remediation.

    (1b) If anybody actually starts this business and makes it profitable, I hereby claim 1/3 of the profits in perpetuity.

    (2) My post doesn’t recommend any course of action as far as the actual offering — or not offfering — of remedial courses. In particular, I never suggested we get rid of them. However, Eric does point out that a feature of small colleges is highly limited resources, and there’s only so much remediation that a small school can do with the moey available — so a line has to be drawn at some point.

    (3) As for the multiple chances, I stand by what I said in the article — but only because letting a student iterate remedial courses again and again is in fact not doing that student any favors. It’s not in their best interest if the chances they are given simply aren’t working out, and the university has an obligation to say so.