When Andrea Diaz was applying to colleges, she got good news and bad news. The good news was that American University, a private four-year university in Washington, D.C., wanted her. The bad news was that it required her to come to campus early to take two summer developmental-level courses in math and English.
"I was traumatized by it," Diaz says, "because I felt that they didn't see in me the potential to do well in college."
When is a college course not really a college course? When it's classified as "developmental," or, less euphemistically, "remedial." These courses cover material considered high-school level, typically in math or English composition.
"It was teaching us sentence structure and how to write an essay and verbs and pronouns," Diaz says of the English course she took as a pre-frosh. "It was such an elementary course, I was very surprised."
College students who don't meet academic standards or can't pass a placement test must take these courses to graduate. They typically pay tuition as for any other course. But often, these courses don't count for credit.
When we talk about remedial courses, we usually talk about community colleges, where more than half of students take them, and where they pose a significant barrier to graduation for many.
But a new report from the advocacy group Education Reform Now and the advocacy publication Education Post broadens the lens. According to their analysis of state and federal higher education data, 45 percent of students who place into remedial courses come from middle- and high-income families. That describes Diaz, who attended private school in the affluent Sherman Oaks section of Los Angeles.
This was what Michael Dannenberg, a co-author of the report, calls a "whoa" moment: "realizing that students from all income backgrounds are suffering the consequences of mediocre high schools."
Thirty percent of these students are going to four-year public universities, and another 9 percent are at private four-year colleges, the category of school that charges the highest tuition, the study found. At American University, Diaz's school, it's $21,278 for full-time freshmen, plus another $6,000 or so for room and board. (AU actually covered the cost of Diaz's summer courses, but having to take them meant she couldn't take a summer job.)
Among the report's other findings:
- When they attend private colleges, underprepared students from the top income strata are spending $12,000 extra to study things they should have learned in high school.
- Over all, across all income groups at all types of colleges, students are borrowing an extra $380 million a year just to take high-school level courses in the first year of college.
Education Reform Now's agenda is to promote more rigorous standards in K-12 education, particularly the Common Core. Their contention is that students are underprepared because high schools aren't doing their jobs.
"Because of underpreparation and poor performance, we're seeing people having to pay more for college," says Dannenberg. "High school policy changes could make college more affordable. And higher ed policy changes could promote better rigor and academic preparation in high school."
Another, not necessarily contradictory, interpretation of the data is that remedial education is simply inefficient.
"Students are 75 percent less likely to complete college if they have to take a remedial course," says Mary Nguyen Barry, the report's other co-author. "It's making college a poor value proposition for many families because there's such a high dropout rate."
In the book Redesigning America's Community Colleges, published last year, the authors cite evidence that students assigned to remedial courses based on placement tests do far worse in college, compared with others who have statistically indistinguishable scores on the same tests. The authors' recommendation is to get rid of remedial pathways altogether, place students directly in credit-bearing courses and surround them with tutoring and other resources if needed.
Diaz, a junior planning to go abroad in the fall, would have preferred to skip her developmental courses. "I felt like I would have been OK transitioning directly into college," she says. "Having extra help made me feel like I wasn't good enough."