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Remedial Education: Focus on Improvement, Not Elimination

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Last week Ohio joined 21 other states and higher education systems eliminating funding for remedial education. While issues over alignment, delivery, expense, and the effectiveness of remedial education make it one of the most complex issues in higher education today, we argue that the elimination of funding runs counter to the nation's college completion goals. Equally important, the decision to eliminate funding for a pathway to postsecondary access runs counter to our moral imperative to educate all of this country's citizens -- irrespective of preparation.

Remedial education has been on postsecondary campuses since the beginnings of higher education in the early 17th century. The need for remedial instruction was heightened in the 20th century by the promise of Brown and realized by the open-door policies enacted in the wake of the civil rights movement. These two landmark events reinforced the importance of a college education for social mobility and economic stability. Above all, these policies, built on the premise of equal access to opportunity, meant that college admission would no longer be denied to a diverse populace due to inadequate preparation.

We agree that remedial education in the United States must be re-evaluated, better aligned, and assessed, but we are alarmed that state funding cuts are being touted as the answer. How does this address the underlying issue of inadequate preparation? With or without funding the need for remedial education is still there.

Approximately one-third of college students are required to enroll in at least one remediation course. These percentages differ across institutional type, as the majority of students needing remediation enroll in the 2-year colleges and are predominantly African American and Latino. Still, national survey data suggest that over 20 percent of students in 4-year institutions are identified as needing remedial instruction and other demographic data show that students identified as needing remediation are both low achieving and high achieving, come from urban and suburban environments, and at least one-fourth of students come from high socioeconomic families.

The issue of remedial education is not an issue impacting a certain segment of society, but cuts across race, gender, income and ability. This is a systemic issue that needs to be resolved across the P-20 education pipeline, but policies that aim to defund remedial education place the burden of responsibility solely on students without fully considering how the system through its policies and practices may have directly contributed to their "inadequate" preparation. We offer five reasons to consider fixing the "system" instead of cutting it:

  • Students who are required to enroll in 3 or more remedial courses are less likely to succeed; it should be noted that these students represent a very small percentage of students requiring remediation. Incoming students are more likely to enroll in one remediation course, and of these, research shows they do even better than those who start off in college-level courses.
  • The research shows that the need for remediation is arbitrary and subjective. One can be enrolled in colleges within a 20-mile radius of each other and students with similar academic preparation and credentials may need remediation in one institution but not need it in another.
  • By eliminating remediation, we are denying access and opportunity to countless underrepresented and underserved students who have already been shortchanged by the system of schooling.
  • As previously noted, remediation is a system issue with questions of alignment, standards, teaching practices, and support services left to be answered. But the knee-jerk response is to eliminate because this is "what should have been learned already." When more than 50 percent of a college-going population needs remediation, can we truly say it's the students' problem alone? Can we truly hold them accountable and make them pay for a broken system?

The bottom line is that we have a moral imperative to educate. The states have taken this on with many declaring education a fundamental right of every citizen. Is it appropriate to now qualify or set conditions to that fundamental right?

Dr. Leticia Bustillos is co-director of PRePARE.

Dr. Noël Harmon is National Director of the Talent Dividend at CEOs for Cities.