Reforming College Remediation Programs

Despite the rising percentage of working-age adults with a college degree, low college completion rates are still a major problem in the US and will have to rise much more to meet the demands of the future workforce. One problem, especially as workers have been displaced following the economic crisis, is that many students are arriving or returning to college underprepared for college work. Future of Children author Eric P. Bettinger, Angela Boatman, and Bridget Terry Long report that the number of high school graduates who are ready for college-level material may be as low as one-third, with even lower levels among some nontraditional students.

Colleges have adjusted to the needs of incoming students by offering greater access to developmental or remedial courses, placing close to 40 percent of incoming freshmen into such courses. Structure and quality vary widely, and they have shown mixed results in their effectiveness. Some argue that too many students are placed in remedial courses unnecessarily, with high costs to institutions and the public. Evidence suggests that remedial courses may have positive effects for those who need them, but may actually have negative consequences for those who don’t.

Bettinger, Boatman, and Long say one way colleges might improve the effectiveness of such programs is to reexamine placement procedures. For example, some states have begun offering placement exams to high school sophomores and juniors, as opposed to waiting until their college freshman year, to give students the opportunity to consult with parents, advisors, and educators about areas to focus on as they prepare for college. Some institutions are also making efforts to redesign their developmental programs, stressing remediation not as a curricular roadblock but as a means to launch students on to college-level work and give them the skills they need to succeed in a college major. For the best evidence for what works, read the latest research on this topic in the Future of Children issue on Postsecondary Education in the United States.