Remedial Courses Perform Important Service, Report Concludes
At a time when many politicians and educators are criticizing college-level remedial classes as expensive and inappropriate, a study released last week finds such help is a "core function" of higher education and proclaims it a "good investment" for society.
The study, conducted by the Institute for Higher Education, a nonprofit research group in Washington, and financed by the New York City-based Ford Foundation, found that the cost of remedial education is modest compared with that of other academic programs. And it is a necessity in a nation where 80 percent of jobs require some education beyond high school, the report argues.
"I'm very troubled by the conversation in the past year or so," said Jamie J. Merisotis, the president of the institute. "Policy discussion has proceeded without the basic facts about how remediation works and what the likely impact of policy changes will be."
The report recommends that educators should try to reduce the need for remediation by increasing collaboration between teachers at the K-12 and college levels. Educators should align high school requirements and course content with college content and competency expectations, the report says. Other strategies include identifying students who are having problems early during the K-12 years, mandating mentoring as a requirement of financial aid, and improving teacher preparation.
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But in the meantime, the current need for remedial classes remains great, according to the report, titled "College Remediation: What It Is, What It Costs, What's at Stake."
Some 29 percent of first-time freshmen at colleges around the country enrolled in remedial reading, writing, and mathematics classes in 1995, down 1 percentage point from 1989.
Nearly half, or 46 percent, of students who took remedial courses are older than age 22; 25 percent of the students are over 30.
Those classes cost schools about $1 billion annually, less than 1 percent of the nation's $115 billion total budget for public higher ed ucation, the report notes.
"Remedial education at the college level is a more cost-effective investment," the report concludes. "The alternatives can range from unemployment and low-wage jobs to welfare participation and incarceration."
Changes in New York
The study was conducted partly as a reaction to the phase-out of remedial courses at 11 four-year schools at the City University of New York, scheduled to take place in September 1999.
Critics contend the classes are too expensive and are inappropriate for college students who should have mastered the skills before graduating from high school.
CUNY students who show low proficiency on assessments will be required to take remedial courses offered only at community colleges or during summer sessions.
"Remediation is needed, yes, but it has to be at the entry level," said Anne A. Paolucci, the chairwoman of the CUNY board of trustees. "A student should not compete in regular coursework where he cannot read the text easily, where he cannot ... participate in class discussion easily."
But Mr. Merisotis said many students who participate in remedial classes can keep up with classwork in other subjects.
"[The critics] are assuming students aren't up to par," he said. "What remediation does is provide a supplement where students may not have the background."
There are problems, too, with the way students' skills are evaluated, the report says.
Some colleges use test scores to place students in remedial classes rather than thoroughly probing their strengths and weaknesses, said Colleen T. O'Brien, the managing director of the institute. Moreover, standards for remediation vary within similar institutions.
The report says successful remediation should include proper course placement, consideration of teaching and learning styles, and the use of technology as a teaching tool.
Vol. 18, Issue 15, Page 7