NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

New Ideas About Remedial Courses

April 4, 2014

Schools are making efforts to deal with the problem of meager college completion rates, say Angela Boatman, an assistant professor of higher education at Vanderbilt University.

College completion rates in the United States are poor.

  • Of students enrolling in four-year colleges, less than 60 percent graduate within six years.
  • Only 30 percent of students seeking an associate's degree, enrolled full time in a community college, receive the degree within three years.
  • Estimates indicate that only one third of students graduating from high schools are minimally academically prepared for college.

Traditionally, schools used "developmental courses" to fill the college readiness gap (classes targeted at underprepared students), but these remedial classes are expensive and have not necessarily been successful.

Recently, high schools have responded to this issue with a variety of approaches to identify academic needs, and colleges have developed strategies to shorten degree time and help students advance more efficiently through the system. For example:

  • The Khan Academy provides free instructional videos on a wide variety of topics from history to computer programming. These are available to students online for free.
  • Massive open online courses (MOOCs) have emerged.
  • Some colleges have been able to eliminate traditional lectures and replace them with computer lab courses that deliver content online.

But it is unclear whether these efforts are going to be effective, and reformers need to be sure that they are actually targeting the right problems.

  • It can be difficult to measure how effective remedial interventions are. Measuring the outcomes of remedial students with those that did not take remedial courses does not show whether or not outcome differences were caused by the enrollment.
  • Better data across different student groups would help reformers to see how different student populations are responding to developmental education.
  • Technology creates a lot of opportunities, but also challenges -- not just the cost of equipment and maintenance, but online courses raise concerns with academic integrity.

Centralized policies are not always helpful and institutions should consider opportunities for reform within specific departments or colleges, rather than focusing on a reform agenda that spans the entire higher education system.

Source: Angela Boatman, "Beyond Ready, Fire, Aim: New Solutions to Old Problems in College Remediation," American Enterprise Institute, March 25, 2014.


Browse more articles on Education Issues