The Costs and Benefits of Remediation

Readers of Education Next may have seen a report entitled Diploma to Nowhere from Strong American Schools last year that counted up the number of high school graduates who end up in remedial courses at the next level. The figures are dismaying.

  • 43 percent of all two-year public college students enroll in a remedial course
  • 29 percent of all four-year public college students enroll in a remedial course
  • The remediation rate costs two-year schools $1.8-$2.3 billion per year
  • It costs four-year schools $435-$543 million per year


Keep in mind that remediation enrollments happen because students are evaluated at the college level and deemed incapable of handling college-level work in the subject. If they can’t write a “C” or better essay on a diagnostic writing test, they go into writing remediation. In other words, remedial curricula at the college stage repeats high school-level work. Colleges are, in effect, asked to bring the students up to speed with more high school-like instruction.

And think of the labor costs. For writing remediation, English and writing/rhetoric departments go on a scramble each August as the numbers come in regarding how many courses they’ll have to run. Teachers need to be found, rooms secured, enrollments to be spread evenly, students clamoring for spaces managed, and budgets adjusted.

The big question, of course, is how effective college remediation is at drawing students into higher education and keeping them through to graduation. A recent paper by Burck Smith in the American Enterprise Institute “Outlook” series raises the question. The sober evidence there includes the disappointing fact that, of students in such courses, “40-50 percent will not complete the developmental sequence.” If they do get beyond remediation, only 29 percent earn a bachelor’s degree. That means that overall “any student who places into developmental education has only a 13 percent chance of eventually receiving a bachelor’s degree.”

Apart from the lesser destinies of those who drop out, a simple cost/benefit analysis of the college’s efforts yields a feeble result. All that work of remediation, and only 1 in 8 students eventually receives a bachelor’s degree. That kind of performance can’t continue, especially in a belt-tightening era.

Smith has one prescription to lighten the financial load. It is to make the term and its tuition fees more flexible, so that students would enroll “on a monthly subscription basis” instead of on a “per-course, flat-fee model.” Students proceed at their own pace, and are charged on “how much time they spend using facilities and how much instruction they use.” Instead of group instruction in a classroom, we would have a “call-center staffing model” in which interaction would happen online.

Smith already implements such a model with his company SMARTHINKING. The method stands or falls, of course, on the outcomes, and skepticism about such initiatives is high among college faculty members. But with such a low success rate in the existing model, we need to try other approaches. If this or that one doesn’t work, abandon it and try others.

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