OVERLAND PARK, Kan. – Each year, an estimated 1.7 million U.S. college students are steered to remedial classes to catch them up and prepare them for regular coursework. But a growing body of research shows the courses are eating up time and money, often leading not to degrees but student loan hangovers.
The expense of remedial courses, which typically cost students the same as regular classes but don't fulfill degree requirements, run about $3 billion annually, according to new research by Complete College America, a Washington-based national nonprofit working to increase the number of students with a college degree.
The group says the classes are largely failing the nation's higher education system at a time when student-loan debt has become a presidential campaign issue. Meanwhile, lawmakers in at least two states have pushed through changes and numerous institutions are redesigning the courses.
"Simply putting (students) in three levels of remedial math is really taking their money and time with no hope of success," said Stan Jones, president of Complete College America.
The group's research shows just 1 in 10 remedial students graduate from community colleges within three years and a little more than a third complete bachelor's degrees in six years. Yet the classes are widespread, with more than 50 percent of students entering two-year colleges and nearly 20 percent of those entering four-year universities put in at least one remedial course, the report said.
"At the end of the day if we could say that we are getting more students to graduate, particularly those coming into college without the requisite skills, the investment we have now is worth it," said Bruce Vandal, director of postsecondary education for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, a nonpartisan group that researches education policy. "I think the fact that we aren't getting that result is why legislators and policymakers are up in arms and rightfully so."
The research comes as the cost of a college education continues to grow. The College Board said last fall that the average in-state tuition and fees at four-year public colleges rose an additional $631, or about 8 percent, compared with a year ago. The annual cost of a full credit load has passed $8,000 — an all-time high.
Legislation passed earlier this month in Kansas prohibits four-year universities from using state funds to provide remedial courses.
Beth Gulley, an associate English professor who teaches remedial writing at the 22,000-student Johnson County Community College in northeast Kansas, acknowledges the remediation statistics are "pretty dismal." But she noted it sometimes takes students longer to graduate than the span of time the statistics track.
"I think there is lots of hope," she said.
Take her assistant Brandon True, who dropped a remedial math class twice before completing it and College Algebra. Now 23, he is taking a calculus-heavy class for aspiring video game designers and preparing to transfer to a four-year institution.
"I was terrified," he recalled of his earlier math struggles. Because of those initial struggles problems, he feels like he truly understands the remedial writing students he helps. "I think they choke. It's scary."
Research shows placement exams routinely misplace students in remedial courses, and colleges would do so far less often if they also examined high school transcripts, said Davis Jenkins, a senior researcher at the Community College Research Center at Teachers College at Columbia University in New York.
True knows the limitations of placement exams firsthand. He went from being identified as needing remedial writing help the first time he took the test to qualifying for the gifted writing program the second time.
The classes are being rethought as well. Jenkins recommends doing away with the one-size-fits-all college algebra requirement and having math classes tailored to a few broad areas of study. For instance, those studying history, law or psychology might take a math class focused more on statistics.
"It just kills their desire for learning," Jenkins said, noting that some students are being placed in classes that make them basically redo middle school pre-algebra. "There really is a stigma, so it is clear that we need to rethink it."
The Complete College America report also says research shows half or more of remedial students would be better off being placed in required classes and having the schools building in extra help, such as tutors or more frequent class meetings.
The report said institutions that have used those approaches have seen their unprepared students succeed at the same rates as their college-ready peers. Legislation passed earlier this month in Connecticut allows underprepared students to take full-credit, college-level courses with built-in supports, such as extended instruction, extra tutoring and mandatory labs.
"We're failing these students if we don't change," said Democratic state Rep. Roberta Willis, co-chairwoman of Joint Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee in Connecticut.
Such an approach worked well for Jessica Grubb, 22, of the Round Rock, Texas, near Austin. After years of struggling, the Texas State University special education major knocked out her math requirement during a summer class that met from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. five days a week. She now works as a math tutor.
"This program has literally changed my life," she said, adding that figuring out a tip at a restaurant used to make her panic. "It gives people a second chance."