Ed Policy Proposal #1: Ban College Level Remediation

So if any presidential candidate is out there looking for ideas–particularly you Republicans–here’s my first proposal:

Colleges and universities have been constantly complaining for 30 years or so that incoming students are in dire need of remediation1. These complaints inevitably lead into a conversation about failing high schools, accompanied by fulminations and fuming.

The correct response: Why are remedial students allowed to matriculate in the first place?

It’s not as if the knowledge deficit comes as a surprise. Most students have taken the SAT or the ACT, which most if not all four-year public institutions use as a first-level remediation indicator–that is, a score of X exempts the student from a placement test. Those who don’t make that cut have to take a placement test. Community colleges usually cut straight to the placement test. The most common placement tests are also developed by the Big Two ((Accuplacer is SAT, Compass is ACT).

So why not just reject all applicants who aren’t college-ready?

Private institutions can do as they like, but our public universities ought to be held responsible for upholding a standard.

Most states (or all?) offer two levels of post-secondary education: college and adult education. As colleges have sought to increase access to everyone who can demonstrate basic literacy (and far too many who can’t even manage that), adult education has withered and nearly died.

Pick a level and split them. My cutoff would be second year algebra and a lexile score of 1000 (that’s about tenth grade, yes?) for college, but we could argue about it. Everyone who can’t manage that standard after twelve years of K-12 school can go to trade school or to adult education, which is not eligible for student loans, but we could probably give some tax credits or something for self-improvement.

Adult education could be strengthened by repurposing the funds we now spend on remedial education. The existing community college system could, for example, be split into two tiers—one for actual college level work or legitimate AA degrees, the other for adult education courses, which are currently a weak sister of K-12.

The federal government could enforce this by refusing to back Pell grants for remedial courses in college, as Michael Petrilli and others have called for. State legislatures could arguably just pick a demonstrated ability level and restrict funding to those public universities that ignore it.

Of course, some argue that college is for everyone, regardless of their abilities. This path leads to a complete devaluation of the college degree, of course, but if that is to be the argument, there’s an easy solution. If no one is too incapable for college, then no education is remedial. So give the students credit for remedial courses, let barely functional students get college degrees after 120 credits of middle school work. No?

Proposal #2: Put Remedial Classes Back in High School


1College remediation in its present form came about during the seventies, when colleges expanded access largely to give opportunities to blacks and other minorities. At the time, remedial education was dubbed “compensatory”. Believing that socio-economic circumstances and poor schools led to a correctable deficit….well, see, I can stop right there. If you want the whole history, check out CUNY’s version of it; similar responses took place in campuses all over the country. But I don’t have to explain why that was a flawed belief. Just see the primer items 1-4.


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34 responses to “Ed Policy Proposal #1: Ban College Level Remediation

  • Monic Binomial

    “If no one is too incapable for college, then no education is remedial. So give the students credit for remedial courses, let barely functional students get college degrees after 120 credits of middle school work. No?”

    This is more or less the strategy that my state has decided to implement. There’s lots of Kabuki being performed by Educrats and Educators alike to pretend that it’s not what we’re doing, but it is.

  • Retired

    Great proposal. How would a lexile score translate into an SAT score? I looked up Cal state remediation numbers and about 13% of freshman need remediation in both math and english. Can’t recall the number for needing remed. In just one but iirc it was double that.

  • pithom

    “Most students have taken the SAT or the ACT, which most if not all four-year public institutions use as a first-level remediation indicator–that is, a score of X exempts the student from a placement test.”
    -Nope, not all. When I was a student, my four-year public institution definitely required all students to take the placement tests, no matter the score.

  • Retired

    Take lower tier CSUs like LA and Dominguez Hills where huge numbers of freshmen are in remedial classes and spit the schools into a ÇSU and a Junior college.. San Marcos Junior College. The infrastructure is already there. The remedial kids go to the JC where the program is tailored to them. And it’s cheaper to teach them. Route a lot of them into vocational AA programs. Only the ones who meet transfer requirements without needing remediation go to the CSU as upper class men. A lot will drop out as they do now, but less will have been spent on them. Perhaps the classes they take will help them more. Not that the savings will be realized and wisely used. Turn Pomona into a second SLO. In the long run if (pipe dream) CSU standards get to where Ed proposed, more kids go in to vocational trainining. CSU can focus on bachelor and masters degree students and programs.

    • educationrealist

      That’s one possibility. I was thinking more of dividing JCs into college-ready or adult-ed. So the ones with lots of remedial students would no longer be giving AAs, but converted to adult ed. The ones that are primarily working with college ready people (and of course, there’s overlap) would be ones giving AAs and also transferring kids out to the next step in 4 years. Yours might work, too, but I don’t think we need more 4-years.

  • rob

    A key point of community colleges when they came out in the late 1800’s was to have HS level classes available–so called remedial–to encourage breadth of study in HS and accommodate all learners (e.g. those who changed their minds from trades to going y to college and had not taken college preparatory) whether going for what we call an AA. a BA, or a CI (I year certificate of instruction). In the ’60 many colleges adopted that approach to attract and be compatible with the CC’s (many of which are becoming 4 years while continuing to offer the 2-year degrees).

    The myth is experts blaming the colleges for failing when in fact they’re doing what they were deigned to do 150 years ago!

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  • Oddstar

    I agree with this proposal, but it is never going to happen. We have become the epitome of society described in “Screwtape Proposes a Toast.” The idea that college is not for everyone, that some people are just not fit for education, is anathema to a society that insists on the actual equality of all.

  • Mark Roulo

    Interesting article that seems relevant:


    “Revamping admissions and placement in Louisiana really took off in 2010 when the state enacted the Grad Act. The legislation established cut scores based on ACT benchmarks to determine whether students should be placed in remedial or developmental courses at the state’s colleges and universities. At the same time, the legislation worked to phase out remedial education at the four-year institutions and push students needing those courses in English or math to Louisiana’s community and technical colleges. “

  • edtitan77

    You could make public college free if you had more stringent entrance requirements Of course the racial disparities are such that it’s not politically viable.

  • johns79

    The money from students who start and do not finish is too lucrative.

  • Stephen Karlson

    I note only that trade school is no place for slackers and burnouts, who will be hazards to themselves and others on the shop floor. But a policy that conserves tax money and lifts the morale of serious students and faculty who entered higher education with the expectation of participating in higher education has a lot going for it.

  • Connie Waddell

    From the other side of the argument, I went to 6 different schools before graduating from high school and was terrible at math. After taking a couple years off I went to our local JC and took Algebra and Trig, before jumping into Calculus. I was amazed at how much easier it was the second time around. I assume it was a combination of teaching quality, voluntary attendance, and being four years older. I’m glad the classes were available since they enabled me to finish my Engineering degree and have a challenging profession at something I wasn’t a “natural” at.

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  • vijay

    I am late to this party, but a whole lot of people (universities, state governments) want to get rid of remedial college (at least 4 year) courses. References:



    You can follow the Hamilton project (Long, etc) which is full force remediation versus a number of detractors.

    The fundamental issue here is not remediation; it is wishful thinking.

    The sponsors view a college education as a ticket to the middle-class, they consider improving remediation as a way to strike a blow against poverty.

    However the weakness in their her case is ignoring a fundamental fact: admitting unprepared students to college—specifically four-year schools—sets them up for failure, regardless of the level of remediation services.

    Add this to the racial issue, this may actually be your proposal that may be the last to work. Other proposals like special ed may happen sooner because they will expand and swallow school district budgets, forcing them to play their hand.

  • vijay

    To make you happy, I think the number of colleges that ban no-credit remediation courses in 4 year colleges is 21, Ohio is the latest.

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  • Tim

    At the state level, public universities should charge the full price for remedial classes. Tax payers already paid for HS classes once. No need to pay for a second time.

    • educationrealist

      They do charge the full price. The feds also pay loans. The students don’t get college credit.

      That said, the notion that the taxpayers paid once is nonsense. There’s nothing written that said K-12 education covers a particular level of difficulty.

  • quantiger

    Really? You would take the failing division of a corporation and put it in charge of doing what the actually succeeding division is now doing? Really.

    It’s obvious that by your own logic, the opposite prescription is what is needed. Colleges need to start running High Schools. And High Schools need to start operating like colleges. Germany does the latter; has for ages. It works very well for them. Very well.

    Let’s contrast this proposal with evidence from what has worked. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/26/us/tangelo-park-orlando-florida.html?_r=0
    This guy got the high school graduation rate to 100%, and all students went on to college. That’s what we want. He showed how to get there.

    • educationrealist

      I have no idea what you’re talking about. You think colleges are successfully remediating low level students?

      And anyone talking about 100% graduation rates coupled with college needs only to look at test scores. “Showed how to get there” indeed. Get a grip.

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  • Massimo Heitor

    Individual colleges are free to drop remedial course options and raise academic expectations. Many of them do that. Many go in the other direction and cater to less academic students.

    I don’t see the author making any valid argument for pushing these decisions away from the individual schools and away from the local/state level, and moving them to the national level.

    While I admire some very deep insights from this site on education, and I agree with some of the backing arguments presented here, this policy suggestion seems particularly horrible and poorly thought out.

    • educationrealist

      Translated: someone understands that most of the people not allowed to go to college would be black and Hispanic.

      As for “valid argument”, the schools have an incentive to collect federal funds, provided by the taxpayers. They should not be “free” to decide.

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