Remediation at the college level: Who needs it, and does it help?
HGSE Associate Professor Bridget Terry Long
Many students enter college in the United States without the basic academic skills needed to be successful in their coursework. HGSE Associate Professor of Education and Economics Bridget Terry Long has analyzed this issue, which lies at the intersection of K-12 and higher education. A large research study she and a colleague conducted in the state of Ohio provides much needed information about the effectiveness of remediation for helping college students to graduate.
Many students enter college in the United States without the basic academic skills needed to be successful in their coursework. Researchers from the Manhattan Institute Center for Civic Information found that only 32% of students leave high school academically prepared for college (Greene & Foster, 2003).1 This percentage is even lower among Black and Hispanic students (20% and 16%, respectively). These staggeringly figures are especially disconcerting, because these students are likely to need remediation in college – and far less likely to complete a degree – than classmates who enter with higher levels of skill. Ultimately, not having a college degree means these individuals will have a harder time finding meaningful work in today's knowledge economy.
“In 2001, nearly one-third of first-year students in the United States were required to take remedial classes.”
To respond to the needs of their entering students, most two- and four-year colleges offer remedial courses, also referred to as developmental courses, in reading, writing, and mathematics. The basic goal is that students who complete these courses will then be prepared to complete standard degree requirements. In 2001, nearly one-third of first-year students in the United States were required to take remedial classes. However, schools vary widely in their policies for offering and/or requiring remediation. Ongoing debate surrounds the issues of whether these programs are effective as implemented, when and where the courses should be offered, and who should pay the bill.
As postsecondary institutions decide whether and how to offer remediation – and to whom – sound education research is sorely needed. HGSE Associate Professor of Education and Economics Bridget Terry Long, together with colleague Eric Bettinger, has studied the outcomes of remedial students at public colleges in Ohio. This state provides an important representative case because Ohio administers the fifth largest public higher education system in the United States, and is near the national averages for enrollment and remediation rates. Importantly, in 1998, the Ohio Board of Regents began tracking the educational progress of entering students at its 45 public colleges, based on information from applications, college transcripts, and standardized tests. Students were tracked even if they transferred into another Ohio college. This wealth of information is useful for examining the implementation and effectiveness of remediation in this state, which may also prove relevant to other parts of the country.
In Ohio, all public colleges administer remediation placement exams to incoming freshmen, though the institutions are free to select the tests and cut-off values used to assess need for remediation. Overall, in the fall of 1998, 36% of students in Ohio's public higher education system were placed in remediation for either math or English, or both. These percentages were higher at two-year colleges, as compared with four-year universities. The population of students in remediation covered a broad range of ages, racial backgrounds, and family income levels.2 At the state level, remediation in math is more common than in English (30% vs. 20% of students, respectively). According to the Ohio Board of Regents (2002), 25% of students who had completed a core high school curriculum still needed remediation in either math or English. This finding highlights a disconnect between the level of preparation attained by many high school students and the academic expectations of universities.
“Students who received remediation in math were over 15% more likely to complete a college degree in four years. Those in English remediation programs were 9% more likely to do so...”
To understand the impact of remedial courses on the likelihood of student success, Long and her colleague focused on variation between colleges' cut-off points for remediation. Even if two students from different colleges score similarly on a given placement test, one may be placed in remediation at her school, while the other passes into regular college-level courses. Comparing students who are placed in and out of remediation, while also accounting for differences in background characteristics, Long found positive overall effects for students who took the remedial courses. Students who received remediation in math were over 15% more likely to complete a college degree in four years. Those in English remediation programs were 9% more likely to do so, as compared to similar students not participating in these courses.
For students near the cut-off for remediation, this general form of academic support seems to promote degree attainment. These findings suggest that remediation can be an effective way to help students prepare for college-level coursework. Many questions remain to be addressed, however: What are best practices in remedial courses, and how much exposure is most helpful for students? Do students with far greater academic deficiencies also benefit from remediation? Would support offered in K-12 schools be even more effective at promoting postsecondary success?
Consideration should be given to policies that reduce the need for remediation while still providing the necessary and useful support for students in college. One promising approach involves administering placement exams earlier, when students are in 9th or 10th grade. Coupled with adequate and supportive advising, these earlier exam results might help students, parents, and teachers work together to fill gaps in students' skills before they enter the postsecondary system. Putting policies like this into action will require dialogue between K-12 schools and higher education institutions. Success will help ensure a smooth academic transition from high school to college, and ultimately, from college graduation to the working world.
1The authors define being ready for college as having graduated from high school, demonstrating basic literacy by scoring 265 or higher on the reading NAEP, and passing 4 years of English, 3 years of math and 2 years of science, social science, and foreign language.
2In general, greater proportions of Black and Hispanic students, as compared with White and Asian students, were enrolled in remediation, similar to national trends. Further, more part-time (versus full-time) students were placed in remediation, as were those from lower (versus higher) family income levels. Nearly all of these institutions offer remediation to incoming freshman onsite, though some hold classes on satellite campuses.
This article is based on Bettinger, E.P., & Long, B.T. (forthcoming). Institutional responses to reduce inequalities in college outcomes: Remedial and developmental courses in higher education. In S. Dickert-Conlin & R. Rubenstein, editors, Economic inequality and higher education: Access, persistence and success. New York: Russell Sage Foundation Press.
For a more technical treatment, with complete research findings, see:
Bettinger, E. P. and Long, B. T. (2005). Addressing the Needs of Under-Prepared College Students: Does College Remediation Work? Cambridge: National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper No. 11325.
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