Can remediation succeed at the college level?

About one-third of all freshmen are enrolled each year in a remedial class. Yet current remedial methods are not very effective. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, a mere 17 percent of four-year students enrolled in remedial reading and 27 percent of four-year students enrolled in remedial math go on to earn a bachelor’s degree. A 2010 study says that only half of the students required to attend remedial classes even complete remediation.

The Hamilton Project recently issued a report on college remediation, “Addressing the Academic Needs of Americans,” by Bridget Terry Long, academic dean and professor at the Harvard School of Education. The Hamilton Project is an arm of the Brookings Institution that focuses on expanding economic opportunity. Because its sponsors view a college education as a ticket to the middle-class, they consider improving remediation as a way to strike a blow against poverty.

Long’s paper offers well-founded recommendations for improving remediation, addressed to a variety of policy-makers, including state governments, school districts, and colleges. However, the report is vague on the costs of remediation, and Long weakens her case by ignoring a fundamental fact:  admitting unprepared students to college—specifically four-year schools—sets them up for failure, regardless of the level of remediation services. Thus the paper appears to reflect more wishful thinking than persuasive proposals for fulfilling the academic needs of poorly prepared students.

Long’s three proposals are: better placement, better support services, and improving students’ preparation in high school.

To start with placement, students are often put into college remedial classes on the basis of placement exams alone. In many cases, students end up in classes above or below their abilities. And since they don’t get college credit for remedial classes, they can become mired in the remedial process. In Long’s words, remediation becomes a “major barrier” rather than a “gateway” to a college education.

Long suggests that students be evaluated for remediation based on multiple factors, including high school grade-point average, years since high school graduation, and courses taken in high school. North Carolina’s community colleges recently tried out this approach on a pilot basis, will adopt it fully next year, and expect to cut the number of students in remedial classes by 50 percent. Long calls it a “surprising fact” that so few college use multiple factors in placement.

Part two of Long’s strategy is for colleges and universities to “streamline the path through remediation” by improving support services. These may include better advising, tutoring or special sessions while students take college-level classes, and even short online modules targeted to specific deficiencies.

Long highlights the Community College of Baltimore County’s Accelerated Learning Program as an example. It places students who would typically be enrolled in remedial English classes (upper-level remedial classes, that is) directly into college-level courses, requiring them to attend additional support sessions. This methodology has, according to Long, been somewhat effective, both at the community college level and at four-year schools such as the University of Maryland College Park, Austin Peay State University, and Texas State University-San Marcos. (One reason, of course, may be that these students had simply been misplaced.)

Long’s third and final recommendation is taking steps to prevent the need for remediation.

According to Long, only one-fourth of high school students complete a quality academic curriculum. She cites lack of rigor, limited advanced-course options, and poor alignment of curriculum with postsecondary schools as key shortcomings. And students and parents often assume that merely graduating from high school is sufficient preparation for college, when an academic curriculum is usually necessary for success.

One response proposed by Long is to administer college-level tests to students early in high school. The idea is not only to alert students of what’s to come, but also to help advisors and administrators craft a student-specific, supportive curriculum.

And there are other mesh points between K-12 and higher education that can mitigate the need for remediation. Long’s piece recommends collaboration between high school teachers and college instructors to increase continuity between the two levels.

In spite of generally valuable proposals, at various points in her proposal Long presents as success stories practices that seem to lack a prima facie relevance to remediation at all.

Long heralds the Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training (I-BEST) program in Washington State as a new, successful pedagogy. When you watch the introductory video (seen here), however, you learn that I-BEST is not about remediation in the core subjects of math, English, or reading, but rather about vocational training.

Likewise, City University of New York’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) receives praise for being a “promising program” that provides “a rich array of supports for three years, including tuition waivers, free use of textbooks, block-scheduled classes, enhanced advising, career services, and free subway cards for transportation.” While these supports increased the proportion of remedial students completing an associate’s degree, the biggest part of that program seems to be reducing the student’s share of the cost of higher education, rather than pioneering a remedial pedagogy.

Long also believes that online technologies can boost the success of remedial students.

Unfortunately, Long is vague about the costs of these programs. She says optimistically that front-end costs should be weighed against long-term benefits and current expenditures, but she doesn’t offer any insight as to the cost of implementing any of her three main proposals.

Cost aside, Long’s third major point, preventing the need for remediation, is, in my mind, the most logical starting point to effect real change. A student’s need for remediation is really just a symptom of systemic failures on the part of the student, teachers, school system, parents, or some combination of these. The student was allowed to progress to the next level of education without mastering the current level.

Instead, the focus should be on fixing the metaphorical leaky pipe before ratcheting up the water pressure.

Long, however, does not go that far. She says that even if high school graduates are better prepared, “the country would still have to contend with addressing the need of older, nontraditional students, who make up 40 percent of college students today.”

True, but that fact doesn’t mean that we should allow under-achieving students right out of high school to enter a post-secondary degree program—particularly a bachelor’s degree program. “Four-year institutions are the wrong place for remedial students,” writes the Pope Center’s Jenna Robinson in a 2013 analysis of remedial education in North Carolina. Yet Long does not question the steady march to college by those students.

Students should not be allowed to cross the high school/college threshold until they have mastered the basics of a high-school academic curriculum. If that means going back and studying high school courses again or enrolling in a two-year program rather than four-year, that idea has a precedent. When a student applies to graduate school and falls just short of the mark to gain admission, he or she is often instructed to go back and take undergraduate-level courses . Such a student can’t enroll in the graduate program at all until the “remediation” is complete.

This model isn’t a new one; it’s just one that we aren’t used to seeing at the college freshman level. But we should.