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.

Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help

C'mon, let's pull out all our violins now!  Whose to blame if this girl cannot read or analyze on an entry college level?  Went to Catholic School, and had a friend who also went to same school (which was highly academic and college preparatory) and yet he had to take remedial classes.  Part of the problem is schools have been dumbed down so far that kids get pushed through.  In grammar school back in the day, by the time we were in 8th grade we were tackling difficult reading and doing algebra.  Doubt kids are doing the same these days in the public schools anyway.  

Tina Rotondo
Tina Rotondo

Although I feel sorry for these people, isn't college supposed to be a challenge? I took some remedial classes, I lived in a house with 5 people in which we spent a lot of time congregating in the same room of the house and I had no idea what was expected of me as a college freshman although I was probably better prepared than some people. The difference was, if I needed extra help I took advantage of my professor's office hours. If I needed a quiet place to study I went to the local library. If I wasn't sure what was expected of me I asked questions. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to just use common sense. I had a full time schedule along with a full time job. I took my books with me and would study during breaks, lunch, and any other free time I had. Bottom line, it's not a college's job to make things easy on people so they can pass. It's not public pay for your education. Not everybody is cut out for college and not everybody should be there. If the college wants to be helpful, maybe they can offer incoming freshmen who may not do well on the entrance exams (aside from remedial classes), courses on study skills and the like. Beyond that, the colleges shouldn't be tailoring programs to accommodate those who might not belong in college in the first place. Bottom line, if a student wants it bad enough, they will take the necessary steps to make sure they can pass their classes..

Ashley M. Davison
Ashley M. Davison

I, too, attended CUNY BMCC and had to take a summer prep class. I had scored less than a 75 on my Math A regents in high school and HAD to take the CUNY assessment....which I failed. I didnt take remedial classes in college because I took the summer prep class which gave me the tools to pass the assessment the second time around. What they don't tell you in high school,especially if you attend a poorly funded one, in say---the south Bronx--- is that you are at a disadvantage academically, and have to play catch up with the rest of the world.

Vh Hurtado
Vh Hurtado

That's been true for at least 30 years. I believe CUNY only recently halted the remedial program

James McCann
James McCann

Because we're raising idiots who stare open-mouthed into their Blackberries all day.

Spencer Tiberius Rappaport
Spencer Tiberius Rappaport

Well i mean the numbers are all there. Look at the dropout rate. I myself dropped out. Went to Bayside High from 01 til 03, obtained a GED, traveled on to CUNY, where i took remedial classes, luckily i passed because I took it seriously. Ask all the hipster teachers that are around right now how they're 'changing the world' some damn good stories out there (with a lot of kids in the system) but all those bad ones pile up. they may be only grouped together by statistics, but a human being had to fill that role to be put in such a category. There's only the two extremes when it comes to learning. Either you're apathetic, or there is truly a learning disability. its 2013 people. Dont be ashamed.

New York Concert Tickets