Not Completing Remedial Courses Threatens Students’ Prospects For Success in College and Beyond
Every year millions of U.S. students arrive at college campuses unprepared for college work and have to take remedial courses in an effort to catch up. Nationally, 50 percent of students who began postsecondary education in 2003–04 (approximately 1.9 million students) and 68 percent of those who began at public two-year institutions took one or more remedial courses throughout their undergraduate careers.
Steering new college students into remedial classes may boost a poorly prepared student’s chances of success, but students must complete remedial courses, not just enroll in them, in order to reap the benefits. A recent study conducted by RTI for the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) analyzed the college transcripts for a national cohort of first-time college students to examine the outcomes of those who enrolled in remedial courses.
Not surprisingly, we found that students who passed all the remedial courses in which they enrolled had significantly better postsecondary outcomes than did students who failed remedial courses. Completing remedial courses especially benefits weakly prepared students—they earned more college credits and had a higher probability of transferring to a four-year school and attaining a bachelor’s degree, when compared to demographically and academically similar peers who took no remedial courses.
Unfortunately, a sizeable proportion of students placed into remediation do not finish the courses. Drawing on national data from the 2004/09 Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study (BPS:04/09), our study revealed that:
- Unsuccessful remediation is widespread: 51 percent of remedial course takers at public two-year institutions and 41 percent of remedial course takers at public four-year institutions failed to complete some or all of the remedial courses they took.
- Unsuccessful remediation is more prevalent in math than in other areas: among students who began at public two-year institutions, 50 percent of those who took remedial math courses failed some or all of these courses, while 37 percent of those who took remedial English/reading courses did so.
- Large percentages of students who need the most help fail remediation: 75 percent of beginning public two-year students and 83 percent of beginning public four-year students who took four or more remedial courses did not complete some or all of these courses.
There are many reasons why students do not complete remedial courses. A multivariate regression analysis based on BPS:04/09 and controlling for a host of demographic, academic, enrollment, and institutional variables found the following characteristics associated with a higher likelihood of not completing remedial math courses:
- being male;
- severe math deficiency (e.g., enrolled in 3 or more remedial math courses);
- weak academic preparation from high school;
- low-income background;
- low academic integration in the first year; and
- competing priorities while enrolled (e.g., becoming a single parent or working full time).
In addition, research literature cites misalignment between remedial coursework and students’ intended program of study, lengthy remedial course sequences, inadequate counseling and advising support, and placement/diagnostic errors as potential reasons for unsuccessful remediation.
Indeed, our study revealed that many remedial non-completers do not achieve their long-term academic goals: 67 percent of those at public two-year institutions and 44 percent of those at public four-year institutions dropped out of college without earning a degree or certificate. To these students, remedial education comes at a great cost, not only in tuition and fees for the coursework that does not count toward a degree, but also in time and income that they would have earned had they not enrolled in college. Colleges lose as well, not only the human potential but also real dollars in the form of resources expended on designing remedial courses and hiring faculties to teach these courses. Ultimately, widespread unsuccessful remediation threatens the nation’s ability to supply the college-educated workers needed for a rapidly growing economy.
The high cost and poor outcomes of traditional remedial education have spurred debates among policy makers about how remediation should be delivered in postsecondary education. Although remedial education is still viewed as an important component of higher education, recent reforms are aiming to limit remediation. Several states (e.g., Arkansas, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Virginia) have reduced the number of remedial course offerings. Florida has approved legislation that gives community college students the choice of skipping remediation, even when college advisers or placement tests say they need it. Connecticut’s General Assembly has passed historic legislation that prohibits state community colleges from offering more than one semester of remedial instruction to students. Many California community colleges are redesigning their remedial programs by, for example, accelerating two-semester remedial sequences into a single term, offering alternative programs that align remedial content with students’ majors and career interests, and allowing simultaneous enrollment in remedial and college-level courses.
Although many reforms are underway and some small-scale studies suggest that reforms are heading in the right direction, it is still too early to tell whether reforms will have positive impacts at a larger scale and in the long run. When the data from the newest national cohort of college students (the 2012/17 Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study) become available, researchers will have another opportunity to examine the scope and completion of remediation at the national scale and assess the potential impacts of recent reforms.
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References and Endnotes:
 Estimates were based on data from the 2004/09 Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study, an NCES-sponsored survey that followed a nationally representative sample of students who began their postsecondary education in 2003−04 for 6 years through 2009. Estimates were generated using PowerStats, a web-based software application that provides public access to survey data collected by NCES. PowerStats can be accessed at https://nces.ed.gov/datalab/.
 Bailey, T., and Jaggar, S.S. (2016). When College Students Start Behind. New York, NY: The Century Foundation.
 Mejia, M.C., Rodriguez, O., and Johnson, H. (2016). Preparing Students for Success in California’s Community Colleges. San Francisco, CA: Public Policy Institute of California.
Author Perspective: Analyst