NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Many Students Lack Basic Academic Skills to Succeed in College

October 30, 2012

More and more students are graduating high school and entering college unprepared. The reason is that many high school students lack basic academic skills to succeed in college course. In response to this, many two-year and four-year colleges have begun screening students to see if they need remedial courses, say researchers with the National Bureau of Economic Research.

  • Half of all undergraduates will take one or more remedial courses.
  • Remedial coursework is one of the largest interventions to help underprepared college students, costing $7 billion annually.
  • The vast majority of institutions use brief, standardized tests before registration to determine who needs remediation.

Because the screening can be arbitrary, many students can be placed into remedial classes without actually needing them. This has many adverse consequences for the student and the educational institution. First, the school has to pay for the indirect costs of having the student stay longer. Second, the student has to stay in school for a longer period of time because remedial courses don't count for credit.

But remedial courses do have their place in a higher education system. For instance, studies have shown that an underprepared student that dives straight into college coursework not only fares worse, but also depresses the achievement of better-prepared students. Furthermore, some evidence has shown that underperforming students in remedial courses do better in their college coursework.

The system would be better served if accuracy in deciding whether students are put in remedial courses is better. The researchers find:

  • One in four test-takers in math and one in three test-takers in English are misassigned under current testing procedures.
  • Furthermore, using high school transcripts instead of or in addition to test scores reduces the prevalence of errors in course assignments.
  • This would allow institutions to remediate substantially fewer students without lowering success rates for students in college-level courses.

Source: Judith Scott-Clayton et al., "Improving the Targeting of Treatment Evidence from College Remediation," National Bureau of Economic Research, October 2012.


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