College students taking at least one remedial course rose to 2.7 million in the 2011-2012
College students are increasingly spending federal financial aid and taking on debt for high school-level courses that don't count toward a degree, despite mounting evidence the courses are ineffective and may contribute to higher dropout rates.
The number of college students taking at least one remedial course rose to 2.7 million in the 2011-2012 academic year from 1.04 million in 1999-2000, federal data show. During the same span, the amount of federal grants spent by undergraduates enrolled in at least one remedial course rose 380%, after inflation, Education Department figures show. There was also a drastic rise in remedial students taking on student debt
The trends reflect a sharp rise over the past decade in enrollment at community colleges, which disproportionately serve low-income, minority and older populations. About 40% of students entering community colleges enroll in at least one remedial course, according to the Education Department; only about 1 in 4 of them will earn a degree or certificate.
"You clearly see that a big part of the problem is that students of color, first-generation students in low socioeconomic status are getting stuck" in remedial courses, said Eloy Oakley, president of Long Beach City College in Southern California. "They're getting placed in these courses and they're not coming out."
Students are typically placed in remedial courses for English and math and because they score poorly on standardized tests. Federal law permits them to spend financial aid on as much as a year's worth of remediation.
Now, the high dropout rate among remedial-education students—along with a sharp rise in student debt—is fueling debate about whether the government should be more stringent in awarding student aid. Critics—ranging from some think-tank academics and conservatives to a trustee of a community-college system in Texas—say aid should be targeted toward students who are better-prepared.
At the same time, academics and senior officials within the Education Department increasingly view the remedial courses themselves as a major barrier to college completion, particularly among minorities. Many students become discouraged and could succeed without remediation, while others could benefit from shorter, more-targeted catch-up sessions, research shows.
Multiple studies have concluded that, for most students, remediation either hurts or has no effect on their odds of earning a college degree or certificate. The studies have compared the outcomes of borderline students—those just above and just below the cutoff for getting into college-level courses. In a 2012 National Bureau of Economic Research paper, two Columbia University researchers found that students who appeared to have been misplaced in remediation were 8% more likely to drop out than those who went directly into college courses.