Remediation: Still a Mystery

In North Carolina and across the country, many students enter universities unprepared for college-level work. In an effort to combat the problem, universities offer remedial courses to prepare students to pass required general education courses—mostly in math and English.

In 2007-08 about a third of first-year students had taken at least one remedial course, according to the U.S. Department of Education. At public two-year colleges, that number rises to about 42 percent. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, about three-quarters of institutions that enroll freshmen offer at least one course in remedial reading, writing, or mathematics.

To some extent, the need for such a high degree of remedial coursework can be traced to poor standards in high schools. A 2008 study by the nonprofit Strong American Schools found that nearly four out of five remedial students had a high school GPA of 3.0 or higher. For these students, high schools failed to prepare them for college-level work and misled them about their abilities to succeed academically.

Available evidence suggests that efforts to remediate students are not very successful. Remedial students’ prospects for graduation are bleak; those taking any remedial reading, for example, had only a 17-percent chance of completing a bachelor’s degree within eight years, according to 2004 Education Department data. (Among all students, the 6-year graduation rate is 53 percent.)

The UNC Experience

How do North Carolina’s public colleges stack up?

There is good and bad news for North Carolina’s students and taxpayers. Over the past decade, most of the four-year schools that make up the UNC system have been restrained in their use of remedial education, bucking the national trend; fewer than three percent of students in the system take a remedial math or English course. However, as figures below will indicate, new budget priorities suggest that this may be changing.

According to a draft version of The University of North Carolina Remedial/Developmental Activities Report, in 2007-08, 4,884 students were enrolled in some sort of remedial education course. Total expenditures for remediation in that year were $2,543,370, 43 percent of which was spent directly on courses. State funds provided $2,068,340 (about 81 percent) of the total amount spent for remediation. The amount is included in each institution’s instructional budget.

Spending varies widely across UNC schools. North Carolina A&T’s remediation program cost more than $600,000 in 2008-2009, with $457,477 of the money coming from state funds and $154,102 provided from non-state sources. At the other end of the spectrum, NC State’s program cost only $26,900, all of which came from state funds.

Differing definitions of remediation across campuses make comparisons difficult—and not always meaningful. Data from the UNC system seem to exclude some programs (such as the Summer Bridge program at UNC-Chapel Hill), and underestimate costs elsewhere.

Fayetteville State provost Jon Young explains the discrepancy: “the [UNC system] remediation report includes only costs for faculty, equipment, supplies.”  Some programs include other expenses. At FSU, “the summer bridge funds include grants to students to pay tuition, room, board, which were not part of the remediation report. I think it is simply a matter of the reporting categories,” he adds.

Universities in the UNC system use varying methods to remediate students. The primary method is to offer 100-level courses to students who are not prepared for the freshman courses, which usually are called English 101 and Math 101.

At UNC-Chapel Hill, the system’s flagship college, students with a verbal SAT score of 470 or lower (rare at Chapel Hill) must take ENGL 100, which is taught in a workshop format and involves “frequent practice in writing, from short paragraphs to longer papers, focusing on analysis and argument. Workshop format.”

Students unprepared for college-level math must take MATH 100, a review of basic algebra. Hours for this course do not count for any mathematics requirement, nor for hours required for graduation. For all UNC students entering from North Carolina schools, MATH 100 is a review of high school work, since Algebra I is required for high school graduation. The same is true at other universities in the UNC system. Students receive no credit towards graduation for courses that are considered remedial, since the work is essentially a rehash of courses required in high school.

Based on the system’s reporting of enrollment and program expenditures, per-student costs vary substantially. These differing costs are primarily due to the remediation method used and the number of students who need remediation.

East Carolina University has chosen an innovative approach to remediation; students who need remedial course work in math take classes at Pitt Community College instead of at ECU’s campus. This method is a fairly economical alternative, costing only $132.46 per student.

At UNC School of the Arts, a learning specialist teaches the remedial writing course, which focuses on study skills like time management in addition to basic writing. Although the school has confidence in this “proven method,” the cost per student is extremely high because so few students at UNCSA need remediation.

Not all UNC schools offer remedial courses. Some simply enroll all students, regardless of SAT scores or other test results, in the same required English and math 101 courses. At Fayetteville State, all students enroll in the same courses, but those who score poorly on placement tests are required to enroll for either Reading Labs or Academic Support (tutoring). The per-student cost of this technique is $772.

Fayetteville State may not have formal remedial courses, but it does have a “summer bridge program” (which Jay Schalin wrote about here). FSU’s CHEER (Creating Higher Expectations for Educational Readiness) program takes a “boot camp” approach to preparing students whose academic qualifications are weaker than the rest of the incoming freshmen. These students are accepted on a conditional basis only; they must complete the program to attend FSU for the fall semester. CHEER focuses on remedial English and math as well as social skills.

Summer bridge programs are costly alternatives to regular remedial courses. According to Fayetteville State provost Jon Young, UNC system funding for CHEER was roughly $4,300 per student for the 111 students who started the program in 2008.

Except for a limited report on retention in CHEER, there are no data publicly available that measure the effectiveness of North Carolina’s remediation programs, so it’s impossible to say whether North Carolina students in remedial education are graduating at the same 17 percent rate as students nationally.

Because of inconsistencies in data across campuses, the UNC System hasn’t tracked graduation or retention rates for students in remedial education. One UNC system researcher in the Department of Policy Analysis and Accountability explained: “The more we looked at the data, the more we realized that it was a rather complicated issue. Campuses have had different definitions for remedial courses and one campus could have different definitions from one year to another. It’s extremely hard to use or explain the data.”

Not knowing whether North Carolina’s programs are successful could be an expensive omission. The Alliance for Excellent Education (AEE) estimates the nation loses $3.7 billion a year because students are not learning basic needed skills; this figure includes $1.4 billion to provide remedial education to students who have recently completed high school and the almost $2.3 billion that the economy loses because remedial students are more likely to drop out of college without a degree, thereby reducing their earning potential.

Without tracking graduation or retention rates, it’s impossible to know which programs are effective or which schools are getting the best bang for the taxpayers’ and students’ buck. Although $2.1 million is a relatively small expense, even that amount would be difficult to justify if UNC’s success rates are comparable to the federal figures.

The Future of Remedial Education

During the sixteen-year period for which UNC has tracked remedial education, there was a general decline in total enrollment in and number of sections of remedial education courses. Both actual and inflation-adjusted expenditures for remedial instruction decreased. As the graph below shows, since 1991, remedial enrollment has declined 37 percent and inflation-adjusted expenditures have declined by 28 percent. However, over the last few years, remediation has been making up some ground.

Now, the administration wants to bolster remedial education programs at eight schools in the UNC system—mostly those with low graduation rates. In its budget priorities list for 2011-2013, the UNC system asked for targeted funds of nearly $5 million for “improving retention and graduation rates” at Elizabeth City State, Fayetteville State, NC Central, UNC Asheville, UNC Charlotte, UNC Greensboro, UNC Pembroke, and Winston-Salem State. Some of this money will be designated for remediation.

Amid budget crises and uncertainty about academic outcomes, it’s difficult to predict the future of remedial education in North Carolina. Evaluating performance in the future would require simple changes—primarily standardizing universities’ reporting on enrollment, costs, and academic achievement across universities. In the meantime, the UNC system should focus on appropriate admission standards that don’t mislead weak students and proven remediation methods that turn students into graduates; seventeen percent is simply not good enough.