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We hear reports about the seemingly large number of college freshmen who have to take remedial mathematics and English as they begin their college careers. Publicly available statistics indicate as many as one in five high school graduates enrolling in four-year institutions must take at least one remedial course.

This news is disconcerting from several perspectives. On its face, it implies that these students have not received an adequate education in elementary, middle, and high school. At least, their preparation has not been sufficient for full success in college. Further, most college remedial courses require students to pay tuition, but they receive no credit toward graduation. Consequently, students find themselves falling deeper into debt before they even begin their path toward graduation. Studies also show that students who are required to take remedial courses are less likely to graduate with a degree, and if they graduate, they are less likely to earn degrees that lead to highly compensated careers.

While it might be tempting to blame the high schools students attended, the situation might be more complicated than it initially appears. In fact, several forces are likely contributing to the problem and they deserve scrutiny.

Students and families increasingly hear the message that college is a crucial part of the path to career success. The expectation has led to an increasing number of students enrolling in college, even when they have no strong interest in or commitment to attend. For many, college feels like the next educational step and family expectations and aspirations feed this perception. Consequently, too many students enter college without having made a commitment to academic learning that will prepare them for success. This argument is not intended to place full blame on the students. Rather, it is recognition that the drive necessary to prepare for and succeed in higher education often is not present for a number of societal, community, family, and personal reasons.

High schools certainly share responsibility if they fail to help students understand the expectations and level of learning necessary for success in college. However, they face pressure to send as many students to college as possible, since such data often is used as a proxy for school academic challenge and success. This pressure can lead to encouragement for college enrollment even when students’ current performance makes college a risky choice. Meanwhile, the academic expectations and skill levels necessary for college success are not secret. Higher education institutions typically are eager to share information regarding the skills necessary for success at the college level. Sharing this information with students early in their secondary school careers might help them to adjust their current learning efforts and inform decisions about post high school pursuits.

Institutions of higher education also need to share responsibility for this situation. The state of student academic preparation is not difficult to ascertain. In fact, this information presumably is part of the decision-making process used to assign students to remedial classes. What if this information played a more active role earlier, including in the admissions process? Don’t students deserve to know in advance what they will face once enrolled? Is it fair to place students in a circumstance where success is unlikely?

It is also true that higher education institutions face pressures that may influence their attention and decision making. Students provide revenue. The more students who enroll, the more revenue they generate. Further, remedial courses generate revenue without having to grant credits. Since students who have to enroll in remedial courses often exit college early, the revenue they generate presumably can be reallocated to support more advanced students in programs that enroll fewer students and are more expensive to offer.

The challenge of academic remediation in higher education is important and must be addressed, but we need to be thoughtful about the approach. In fact, it appears to be a system problem and system problems almost always require engagement from multiple stakeholders and perspectives to find effective, responsible solutions. It is time for higher education and secondary education to do more than point fingers. Students’ lives and futures are at stake. This problem can be solved, but it will require courage and leadership from all who play a role.

Complete College America. (2012, April). Remediation: Higher Education’s Bridge to Nowhere. Retrieved from

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