Too Unschooled for School

Why are so many incoming college students getting stuck in remedial courses?

When Priscila De Los Santos graduated from high school in January, she took less than a week off before starting classes at City University of New York's Borough of Manhattan Community College. She felt confident in her ability to do well. She had finished high school a semester early, earning solid scores on the performance-based assessment tasks that her school, Arturo A. Schomburg Satellite Academy in the Bronx, used in place of several Regents tests.

Before she could register for classes, though, she found that she had failed CUNY's entrance assessments. She would have to take developmental reading and writing for at least her first semester, and later, she would have to take developmental math.

"It was frustrating," the 18-year-old Bronx native recalls. "I was very disappointed."

Jesse Kuhn/

De Los Santos became one of the 1.7 million American students who arrive on college campuses each year only to find that their schools have deemed them unprepared to be there, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Sixty percent of U.S. community college students and 20 percent of four-year-college students will take at least one developmental, or remedial, class. And more than 75 percent of remedial community-college students will not earn a degree, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Lowering these high rates, researchers and educators say, will require understanding why students end up in such classes, improving how they are prepared for college, and changing how they are treated once they arrive.

"The bottom line is, even though the whole remedial enterprise was certainly started with good intentions and there's been a huge amount of experimentation, we're saying you've got to really question the fundamental model," says Davis Jenkins, a senior research associate at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College who studies community-college outcomes with a particular focus on low-income students. "Because, at the end of the day, it's not working."

Graduation Rates on the Rise

One explanation for increased enrollment in remediation is the rising high-school graduation rate, which has now reached 75 percent nationally, a 40-year high, according to Education Week. In New York City, the rate jumped 18 percentage points between 2005 and 2012, when 65 percent of all students who had entered high school four years earlier earned a degree.

Many of these new graduates enroll in community colleges, which generally admit anyone with a high school diploma. Yet many arrive academically unprepared. In 2012, 79 percent of New York City public high-school graduates who enrolled in a CUNY community college tested into at least one remedial class.

Entrance assessments are another reason that students land in developmental classes. These tests sometimes label students as needing remediation when they don't; two studies published by the Community College Research Center in 2012 found that up to a third of students in developmental courses could have immediately taken regular courses and passed with at least a B.

"High school grades are a much better predictor of success" overall, Jenkins says.

Once students enter developmental courses, they can face additional problems. Classes typically meet only two or three times a week for a few hours, which might not be enough time to strengthen students' skills. And students of color, low-income students, English language-learners, and students in the first generation in their families to attend college—all of whom enter remediation at rates higher than the general population—may have additional stressors, such as working long hours to support their families while attending school, says Marybeth Gasman, a professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania who studies low-income students of color.

Ramon Garcia, a math teacher in BMCC's CUNY Start intensive remediation program, says, "I've had individuals who were in homeless shelters, I've had individuals who were recently released from prison, I've had individuals who were in halfway houses, I've had individuals who were receiving some type of assistance, whether for substance abuse or depression."

When Charles Hirsch became an English professor at New York City College of Technology a decade ago, he was surprised by his remedial learners' lack of preparedness. "They'd get up and walk around the classroom," he says. "They had no idea that studying has a process to it: You read, you study, you take notes, and you review—they never did that. They had no dictionary skills. They had such a cavalier attitude about having homework in; they might have it, they might not."

De Los Santos had similar frustrations with some of her BMCC classmates, who she says did not pay attention and interrupted class, as well as with her instructors.

"I used to even cry, because the professors, they were not helping me enough," she says.

At the end of her first semester, De Los Santos failed her ending assessments for her developmental courses. In doing so, she became part of another trend: Students in such courses struggle to pass them. In the CUNY system in 2012, according to its latest performance report, 50 percent of remedial writing students passed the exit exam, 43 percent passed remedial reading, and 38 percent passed remedial math.

Students who fail the courses must retake them until they pass. The classes do not count for graduation credits, though they usually cost as much as regular courses. Federal financial aid can be used for only 30 credits of remediation; students who do not pass by the cutoff find themselves with no funding and no way to go forward. Faced with mounting debt, many of these students end up dropping out.

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