Want a quick-and-dirty fix to the college remediation epidemic? Make the classes ‘optional’ and watch your unprepared students fail

Another research organization took a fresh look at the issue of remedial education, confirming once again that yes, our nation’s college goers are spending more than $1 billion to learn in college what they should have learned in high school. But what really jumped out from the Center for American Progress’ new report was just how widely states varied when it came to the percentage of first-time college students taking remedial classes.

California topped the list for the amount of money spent on college remediation–$205 million–while in Florida, a staggering 93 percent of first-time college students landed in remedial courses.

Here’s what we do know about remedial courses: Nationwide, more than 40 percent of first-year college students require remediation in English, math, or both. Students enrolled in these courses rarely receive college credit, are more likely to drop out of college without obtaining a degree, and even if they do graduate, take almost a year longer to finish their degree. Contrary to common belief, it’s not just first-generation and low-income students shunted into these dead-end courses. Nearly half of remedial students come from middle-income and affluent families, and about 40 percent are attending public or private four-year colleges, according to this report released earlier this year. And while students of color do have higher rates of remediation, 35 percent of white students end up in remedial courses.

But let’s go back to Florida, which can now serve as a worst-case exemplar of how NOT to handle an epidemic of high school graduates needing college remediation.

Think about that eye-popping number for a minute–a number that speaks to an unconscionable failure by Florida’s education system to prepare students for postsecondary success and a shot at the middle class. When remediation rates are that high, you can’t glibly blame students or parents or poverty or greedy colleges for accepting unprepared students. This represents a systemic breakdown of its K-12 system.

To be clear, the data in this CAP report dates back to the high school class entering college the fall of 2009–an embarrassing low that inspired Florida legislators to spring into action to fix those dismal stats. Remediation numbers have since dropped precipitously in Florida–but, unfortunately, for all the wrong reasons.

Instead of trying to truly address why so many Florida high school graduates were struggling in college, Florida decided to make remedial education optional and just pretend high school graduates were ready. As this Inside Higher Ed article noted:

In 2013, Florida legislators sought a way to help students save money and encourage them to stay in college. Developmental education courses, which are not credit bearing and don’t count toward a degree, would no longer be mandated for traditional high school graduates who don’t score well on the state’s standard placement tests. And the placement test that would determine whether a student should enter a developmental education course was no longer mandatory, either.

Guess who wasn’t exempt from the tests and courses? Adults and non-traditional students–not because these students are more likely to persevere despite the setback of remediation, but because the struggle of those students can’t easily be blamed on the high schools that just handed them a diploma. (Of course Florida takes great pride in its rising high school graduation rate, which has increased almost 20 percentage points in the past 11 years).

Guess what happened after Florida made the placement tests and classes optional? Students stopped taking them. At Miami-Dade College, enrollment dropped by 42 percent in remedial math and by 46 percent in remedial reading. Many unprepared students just enrolled in credit-bearing college-level classes.

Guess what happened next? Yep, students flunked those regular college courses, which cost them money, stalled their progress, threatened their financial aid and left them even more discouraged. The outcome was predictable, one college director told Inside Higher Ed:

“This isn’t rocket science. If students don’t have the skills to complete a college course and you let them take the course, there’s a likelihood they’ll fail the course. What did they expect? All along this legislation was questioned by experts in the field.”

The law, in essence, left the decision up to students to figure out if they were college ready, or not. Yet students often aren’t sophisticated about the level of rigor in college courses, even in a remedial or developmental course.

…Researchers at Florida State University’s Center for Postsecondary Success have been studying the effects of the legislation and found results across the state similar to St. Petersburg and Miami-Dade. Students are reluctant to enroll in developmental education courses even when advised to do so.

This misguided law is still on the books, which means the state’s remedial rates will stay artificially low for the coming years. There is some hope that the state’s higher standards will help close the yawning gap and better prepare high school graduates for college. The state adopted the Common Core State Standards in 2010, and later renamed them the “Florida Standards” after the Common Core label proved unpopular with voters, but left the standards as written largely intact.

In the meantime, the responsibility for fixing this problem has fallen on Florida colleges, which have been forced to rethink how they teach remedial courses and how to urge unprepared students that passing a remedial class makes a lot more sense than flunking a regular college course. As another college director observed:

“It’s like their heads are in the sand.”

Photo courtesy of State Impact, an NPR project.

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Tracy Dell'Angela

Tracy Dell'Angela

Tracy loves to ask questions and write stories. She roots for the underdog, wants our nation to reimagine schools and the teaching profession, and seethes about how much school inequity she sees. She spent most of her career as a journalist covering schools and crime. She and her husband raised two daughters in a diverse suburb of Chicago. She currently runs an education foundation in her community and formerly served as managing editor of Education Post. After leaving journalism she explored her wonkier side communicating school research at the University of Chicago and the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education. She is Californian by birth and a Chicagoan in spirit. She loves the outdoors and all animals, especially her spoiled "dingo" dog.

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