College students assessed as needing remedial algebra more likely to succeed by instead taking credit-bearing statistics with additional support

Alexandra W. Logue:, City University of New York
Amanda Olberg: (917) 543-6798,, Education Next

College students assessed as needing remedial algebra more likely to succeed by instead taking credit-bearing statistics with additional support

February 2, 2017—Across the United States, more than half of new freshmen are ineligible for college-level coursework each year as a result of their performance on placement tests in English and math. But just 1 in 10 community college students placed into remedial classes goes on to graduate within three years. In a new article for Education Next, Alexandra Logue and Mari Watanabe-Rose of City University of New York and Daniel Douglas of Rutgers University present evidence showing that if students assessed as needing remedial elementary algebra are instead placed directly into a college-level statistics course with additional support, they are more likely to pass their initial college-level quantitative course and, after three semesters, more likely to have completed college-level credits than are students placed in remedial algebra courses.

The study, which was conducted at three community colleges at the City University of New York, represents the first controlled test of an alternative to traditional remediation. In the fall of 2013, the researchers randomly assigned 907 freshman students assessed as needing math remediation into one of three groups: traditional remedial elementary algebra; the same algebra course with an additional two-hour weekly workshop; or a college-level statistics class with an additional two-hour weekly workshop. They collected student performance data, survey data on their attitudes towards math, and data on the participants’ future course taking and completion.

Fifty-six percent of study participants enrolled in statistics passed the class, and among students who earned relatively high—though still not passing—scores on the placement test, the pass rate was 68 percent. In comparison, 45 percent of students in the remedial elementary algebra course with weekly workshops and only 39 percent of students enrolled in the remedial elementary algebra course without weekly workshops passed (see figure). Students with the lowest scores on the placement test benefited similarly from taking statistics when compared with students with higher scores.

By the end of Spring 2015, three semesters after the experiment’s end, just 37 percent of remedial elementary algebra students had passed a college-level quantitative class, which is required for graduation, compared to 60 percent of students placed directly into statistics. Statistics students had also accumulated roughly five more college credits than students in remedial algebra without workshops (a gap that had grown larger after each semester, indicating that it was not just due to the credits earned in the original statistics course).

These findings suggest that traditional remedial courses, which cost states and students at least $1.3 billion annually, may be doing more harm than good.  A shift in college requirements away from traditional remediation to this new, evidence-based, strategy of placing students into college-level courses with concurrent support “could positively affect the academic progress of hundreds of thousands of college students each year,” the authors report, and “the benefits of a college degree are considerable and wide-ranging.”

The article, “Reforming Remediation: College students mainstreamed into statistics are more likely to succeed,” will be available Tuesday, February 7 on and will appear in the Spring 2017 issue of Education Next, available in print on February 28, 2017.

About the Authors: Alexandra W. Logue is former university provost and executive vice chancellor of the City University of New York (CUNY) system, and a current research professor at CUNY’s Center for Advanced Study in Education (CASE). Mari Watanabe-Rose is director of undergraduate education initiatives and research at CUNY. Daniel Douglas is a senior researcher at Rutgers University’s School of Management and Labor Relations.

About Education Next: Education Next is a scholarly journal committed to careful examination of evidence relating to school reform, published by the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance at the Harvard Kennedy School. For more information, please visit


Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College