Thinking out loud about remedial education

I’m in Seattle, where about 250 people, mostly grantees of the Gates Foundation, have gathered to talk about increasing the rate of success in higher education, especially among low-income students. My role is to lead a conversation with three individuals who represent three different slices of the industry: public community colleges, for-profit institutions, and on-line universities.

The Foundation was kind enough to suggest some opening questions, such as “How can we serve more low-income students better, faster and cheaper?” and “What do each of your institutions have to offer?” and “What will higher education look like 5-10 years from now?”

Maybe it’s because I am still medicated after my recent knee replacement surgery, but I find my mind wandering to other, perhaps more provocative questions. Such as:

Everyone is talking about ramping up ‘success’ and doubling the percentage of low-income students completing their degrees from the current 26% to 52%. Admirable as that is, how is that possible when these institutions operate in a world in which institutional success is not rewarded and institutional failure is not punished?

Does it make sense to have state money flow to these institutions based on enrollment on a certain day in October? Shouldn’t at least some of the money be dependent on the number of students who make it through to the end, successfully?

Picture in your mind a restaurant at the Grand Canyon, the only place around where you can get a meal. There’s always a line out front. Very few repeat customers because everyone’s a tourist. What interest does the restaurant have in serving better meals? Likewise, these institutions operate on what economists call a ‘churn model.’ As long as the number of incoming students equals those leaving, it doesn’t’ matter economically whether the students graduate or flunk out or drop out. How can that model be changed?

Given that more than half of incoming community college students are required to take at least one and often three or more semesters of remedial education, shouldn’t community colleges be working at the high school level? Shouldn’t they give their placement exam to all HS juniors, just to let them know where they stand? That seems like a no-brainer, but in fact only a few community colleges bother.

Why are remedial courses organized by semester? If the institution can tell students what their deficits are, shouldn’t they be able to study up and then try to test out? Why not make it like the test for a driver’s license? Who benefits when the time is inflexible? Certainly not students, who after all want to get beyond remedial and into real college courses?

About one-third of community colleges now have either divisions or departments of developmental education, separate organizations that need failing students in order to justify their existence. What interest do they have in eliminating the need for remedial education? Don’t they, by definition, have a vested interest in seeing that the flow of failing students continues?

Educators talk about the student’s “Right to Fail,” which means operationally that they don’t limit the number of times a student can take and fail remedial math, for example. I’ve met students who tried four, five and six times without success. Is this responsible behavior for an educational institution, or are they just cashing the checks?

Community college students are often heroic in their determination. Last night we heard one person talk about her 9-year plan for earning an Associates degree, while another, a policeman, joked about his “30-year plan” for earning his Associates degree. But why should the burden fall on them?

Why are these stories told from only that vantage point, the struggling, heroic, determined student? Why don’t we dig deeper? If we did, we’d learn that the classes were oversubscribed by a factor of ten, or that the classes needed were offered only during working hours, or that courses taken at one institution were not accepted at another. That is, why don’t we look at institutional behavior more carefully?

Walmart just announced a partnership with a for-profit education institution, American Public University. Employees will receive a 15% discount on tuition, and the company is setting aside $50 million over three years to help with costs. Is this a new player in the game? Is this a threat to the status quo? Is this a good thing?

California community college students are leaving in droves, according to so recent research. And they are going to the for profit institutions, despite those places having exceptionally high failure rates. What does this mean? Have students simply gotten fed up with not being able to get the classes they need, when they need them? Is this the canary in the mine, an alarm bell for public institutions? Now California has a partnership with Kaplan, a for-profit institution, in which students get a small discount (15%, I believe). That in fact raises their credit-hour cost by a factor of ten. Who benefits here?

So many questions, so little time. And such an important issue. If you have some answers, please share them in the comments.

6 thoughts on “Thinking out loud about remedial education

  1. Wonderful and important questions, John. I recognize some of them from your great documentary: Discounted Dreams–which I use with my freshman classes at the community college where I now teach. I particularly like the idea of students being able to work through whatever remediation they might need at their own pace and on their own schedule. Right now, it is a huge money-making churn that sends the majority of students in it nowhere.

    Here’s a note, though. Our community college did some research as part of our reaccreditation and found that over the same ten-year period that the state testing program in language arts and math was locking into place, the performance of students who had graduated through those programs (from our feeder public schools) was diminishing proportionally. There are many reasons behind that trend. One solution that I think has great promise is the push to blend the last two years of high school with the first year of postsecondary more seamlessly, enriching the curriculum for all students. Many schools were moving in that direction under the former Tech Prep initiative (part of the original Carl Perkins Act, I believe). Like so many reform efforts, when the funding dried up, so did much of the good work.


  2. If all of the efforts focused on remedial education (DEI, ATD, GPG, GSCC, etc.) are successful, every state will have early assessment programs, every campus will use technology and accelerated remedial programs and higher education institutions will be held accountable for the success of students who require remedial education.


  3. John you are on target. However, I hope we do not get serious about eliminating the unproductive and redundant institutions concerned with human development. Human societies seem to need and befit from redundancy in the systems that serve us. I am all for greater efficiency, but let’s keep the redundancy and hope that it continues to catch some of us who require multiple opportunities. I like your idea for better articulation between k-12 and our community colleges. I volunteer at the SUNY Rockland Community College where we are becomming actively involved in what happens in high school and in preparing students for their studies at the College.
    We want to start before they get to te College.

    I find it interesting that you, the Gates Foundation and so many others neglect, in your concern for improving educational outcomes for low income people the piece of the problem that may be of critical importance. Available research is replete with evidence of the relationships between SES and academic achievement; betwwen family and community supports for academic learning and success in school;
    and between access to opportunities for complementary
    learning experiences out of school and the development of intellective competenc. Yet we give very modest attention to the out of school domain of teaching and learning. It is as if we think of education as c-terminous with schooling. Schools alone cannot close the academic achievement but we treat them as if we expect that they will.


  4. Thanks for taking comments and for confirming the poor results of the state of the condition of higher education in the USA. But if average, gifted, learning disabled, handicapped, exceptional or challenged children from infant to 14 years old were better prepared for their educational development the problem in higher education and the cost of training and re-training employees in the workplace would be substantially reduced, society could be improved and we could have a better world. Children’s education starts when they are infants and parents are their primary teachers. Schools, educators and parents need to build bridges between each child’s home and school so that everyone is on the same side of the table in the best interest of every child. Children can learn best when they are given tools that best fit with their learning style and preferences. Once they build self confidence with the right tools, then they’re willing to be further challenged. This is not rocket science, it is merely focusing on the needs of each child and addressing those needs, interests, proferences and matching them with the right tools for learning.


  5. This is great stuff, John. I recently wrote about this in a way that relates to exactly what you are talking about/asking here. Hopefully the beginning of a solution. Here are the links to the op-ed and a longer blog that goes more in-depth on the idea. Love your thoughts on them–or those of people at the meeting.

    Here is the blog link:
    And here is the op-ed one:


  6. You left out the 800-pound gorilla in this situation: K-12 schools. They need to view testing AND other data in terms of (national) standards to understand what under-achievement is happening for each student.

    Then they need to differentially address each student’s needs – all the way through K-12. Build the students’ intrinsic motivation to engage in their learning and use the teachers’ time more to help with individual needs.

    Much different approach but doable with total change in pedagogy. AND it minimizes the need for remedial efforts.

    Good luck with the knee recovery, John!


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