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Do Remedial College Classes Need Reform? In Virginia, Probably Not

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How do you handle a situation when a student is admitted to a college but isn’t academically prepared to do the work? Traditionally, colleges and community colleges have required students who fail basic readiness tests to take remedial courses. Nationally, students spend an estimated $7 billion a year on such courses, according to the Wall Street Journal.

But educational officials are souring on the practice, saying that remedial classes are typically taught by the least-experienced teachers with little training in remedial teaching methods, that student motivation is low in classes that yield no college credit, and that remedial students graduate with six years at a lower rate than their peers. Colleges in California, Colorado, Indiana, Tennessee and West Virginia are experimenting with an alternative approach, teaching supplementary classes targeting specific skills needed to pass specific classes. Thus, a student taking a sociology class who needs help with statistics would learn only the math applicable for that class.

It will be interesting to see where this experiment goes. I’ve long expressed concern that many colleges, desperate to pump up enrollment and tuition revenue, are too lax with the admittance standards. Under the guise of ethnic and socioeconomic diversity, they accept students who aren’t academically prepared for college. These students are disproportionately likely to fail to graduate and rack up large student debts that hobble them financially for years. Thus, for many, higher ed has become a source of social injustice rather than liberation.

Virginia colleges and universities are often accused of being excessively picky about who they admit, with the consequence that they provide less “social mobility” for poor and minority students. The flip side of that accusation is that the Virginia higher-ed system has the second highest six-year graduation rate in the country, meaning that fewer poor and minority students wind up saddled with debt they cannot repay because they failed to win the workforce credential needed to get a higher-paying job.

Perhaps the idea of teaching targeted skills required for specific courses has merit. Let’s face it, we all learned a lot of stuff in college that we never needed later in life. Speaking for myself, I barely passed a course in calculus, and, beyond retaining the fact that there is such a thing as “differential” calculus and such as thing as “integral” calculus, I remember nothing of what I supposedly learned. Maybe remedial classes teach a lot of stuff that students will never need.

On the other hand, I worry that replacing remedial classes with “basic skills” represents one more step in the watering down of college curricula, and one more step in the degradation of the value of a college degree. Businesses already complain that many college graduates are incapable of thinking critically and communicating clearly as it is. Will scrapping remedial courses make things better? I’m not holding my breath.

According to Virginia Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) data, only one of Virginia’s four-year institutions, Virginia Commonwealth University, provides remedial education, and VCU enrolled only 68 undergraduate students in remedial classes in the 2016-17 school year. By contrast, the community colleges enrolled 36,000. That strikes me as entirely sensible. If students need remedial work, they should get it in a community-college setting where they will incur far less cost than in a four-year college.
For what it’s worth, the number of remedial students in Virginia community colleges is down from 44,400 ten years ago. Either Virginia high schools are graduating fewer students who are academically unprepared or the community colleges are relaxing their standards. I pass no judgment as to which is the case. Either way, remedial education does not appear to be a burning issue in Virginia’s higher education establishment at the moment.

(This column first ran in Bacon’s Rebellion on September 28, 2017)


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