Remediation: Higher ed's expensive 'bridge to nowhere'

More than a third of incoming college students in Michigan take high school-level classes on campus -- essentially repeating material they should have learned before they got their diplomas.

Those remedial classes may cost students, schools and taxpayers more than $100 million a year, and often don’t lead to a degree; many of the 23,000 students taking remedial courses each year drop out before they ever take an actual college-credit course, and few graduate.

Those sobering statistics raise uncomfortable questions for the state: How ready are Michigan students for college in a world where a degree is virtually a prerequisite for the middle class? And in its drive to increase degrees, does the state need to pay twice, once in high school and once in college, for students to learn algebra?

Michigan's numbers daunting

College readiness wouldn’t matter if Michigan was producing enough college graduates. But a Bridge Magazine analysis projected that by 2018, more than 37 percent of jobs will require a bachelor’s degree or more, compared to 29 percent today.

Previous coverage
on college readiness

Ready for college? In Michigan, likely not.

Michigan's 'Faltering 40' on college prep

A decade of slipping: Michigan's students fall behind

Parsing the 3 R's: rigor, responsibility, readiness

The percentage of high school graduates enrolling in universities and community colleges is increasing, but many aren’t academically prepared to succeed. About 35 percent of Michigan high school grads who enroll directly into one of the state's four-year or community colleges take at least one remedial course, according to state data.

Those remedial (also called developmental) courses are intended to pull students up to college level. But most students never make it that far.

Nationally, about 40 percent of incoming college students enrolled in remedial courses drop out before ever taking a college-level course. Only one in 10 earn an associate’s degree in three years, and 30 percent earn a bachelor’s degree in six years.

A new report released by Complete College America, a national organization that works with state governments to increase graduation rates, calls college remediation a “broken system.”

“It was hoped that remediation programs would be an academic bridge from poor high school preparation to college readiness,” the report states. “Sadly, remediation has become, instead, higher education’s ‘bridge to nowhere.’”

“Most kids who go in to remedial programs don’t get out of them,” said Larry Good, chairman of the Corporation for a Skilled Workforce based in Ann Arbor. “It becomes a dead-end. Those are numbers that have to change if the overall numbers (for college graduation) are going to move.”

The problem is most severe in Michigan’s community colleges, where 62 percent of incoming students start out in remedial classes. Few of them end up with a degree. Only 15 percent earn a two-year associate’s degree within three years, a rate that is sixth worst in the nation. (Michigan’s six-year bachelor’s degree completion rate is 55 percent, slightly below the national average.)

Among students enrolled in community colleges and Michigan’s public universities, 27 percent don’t make it past their freshman year.  State data doesn’t specify how many of those dropouts were among the 35 percent who took remedial courses, but they likely make up a large chunk.

“Clearly, the chances of completing a degree are not as good for those who start in developmental courses,” said Mike Hansen, president of the Michigan Community College Association. “It’s extra time and money students have to spend before they start their college degrees.”

At EMU, a surge in remedial work

At Eastern Michigan University, the percentage of freshmen taking remedial courses has jumped from 4.8 percent in 2004 to 17.2 percent in 2011. Rhonda Longworth, EMU’s interim associate provost, says the remedial course increase is a confluence of two factors -- more students enrolling in college, and the typical student possibly being less prepared.

“Part of it is the quality of (academics) being provided (in high schools), and part is the courses they’re choosing to take,” Longworth said. Too often, students goof off during their senior years, figuring their college admission is based on their GPA and ACT taken in their junior years.

“A lot of these skills, if you don’t use them, they get rusty,” Longworth said.

At Western Michigan University, about 9 percent of incoming freshmen take remedial classes.

By contrast, the University of Michigan and Michigan Tech don’t even offer remedial courses. (Editor's note: Remedial data for the rest of Michigan's 15 public universities was not available.)

Sometimes, colleges accept students who are academically acceptable in most areas, but weak in one or two. “Our admissions are based on cumulative (ACT) scores,” explains Longworth. “But our class placement is based on subsection scores, such as math or science.” Rather than reject the student, the school offers remedial classes to bring them up to speed.

Degrees equal bigger salaries

Remedial courses are not a new phenomenon, but they’re getting more attention now because of the push to increase the number of college grads, Hansen said.

“Our mission is changing from (college) access to (degree) completion,” Hansen said. “Having that sheepskin is important for future income.”

A person with an associate’s degree will earn, on average, $270,000 more than a high school graduate over a lifetime; Make it a bachelor’s degree, and the difference is almost $900,000.

That extra income, in turn, provides more income tax to the state, which can provide more services to residents.

“When I went to school, nobody cared if I completed -- that was my responsibility,” Hansen said. “Today, there’s a lot more attention and concern not just that the door (to college) is open, but that people leave with a credential.”

All sorts of high-schoolers need remedial help

Even at the state’s most academically successful high schools, some graduates require remedial classes in college. Graduates of the Troy School District score as “college ready” on the ACT at more than double the state rate; yet almost one in five grads who enroll in a Michigan public college take at least one remedial class. At West Bloomfield, 29 percent take remedial classes; at East Grand Rapids, it’s 16 percent.

See how your school district is faring in college remedial classes

Nineteen districts have less than 5 percent of their college-going students taking remedial courses. Most are small, rural schools where a couple of kids taking or not taking remedial classes can swing the rates. But sizable districts such as Orchard View and Fruitport on the state’s west side and Houghton-Portage in the Upper Peninsula are on the low-remedial list.

At Schoolcraft High School, south of Kalamazoo, less than 3 percent of graduates attending a Michigan public college take remedial courses.

“It is the most important piece for us, to make sure kids are prepared for that next chapter, college and work readiness,” said Schoolcraft Superintendent Rusty Stitt. “It’s very challenging for these kids, with all this global competitiveness that you and I didn’t have to live with.”

Schoolcraft is more the exception than the rule. In 107 districts, half or more of college-going graduates take remedial courses; in 13 districts, including Dowagiac Union on the west side and Westwood in Dearborn Heights, it’s more than 75 percent.

Remedial courses cost taxpayers money. An analysis conducted by the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, estimated that remedial classes costs $3.6 billion a year nationally, with the cost in Michigan alone estimated at $114 million. LINK

That estimate is based on the percentage of in-coming students taking remedial courses, average course-load and average tuition.

Mitch Bean, former director of the House Fiscal Agency*, is skeptical of such estimates, because funding is not tied to particular students or classes. If students weren’t taking remedial classes, they’d be taking more regular, for-credit college classes, thus not saving the state any money, Bean said.

Still, every class at Michigan’s public universities and community colleges is subsidized by the state. That means some part of the cost of remedial education ends up being passed on to the taxpayer, who ends up paying twice to teach a student a particular subject. That cost is high enough that some states, includingOhio, are moving to defund remedial classes.

Ohio will begin phasing out state support for remediation at four-year universities in 2014, and eliminate it altogether by 2020. “The degree (to which) it’s happening right now is far too great and far too expensive,” Ohio Board of Regents spokesperson Kim Norris told the Hechinger Report in December.

Thirteen other states have restricted funding for remedial courses at public higher education institutions. Michigan legislators haven’t suggested such a move here.

“I understand why legislators look at that -- they look at themselves as stewards of taxpayer funds,” Longworth said. “From our perspective, you have to look at the importance of developing a qualified workforce. I have to look at the reality of the population we’re working with, and their ability to adapt.

“We have to find a way to move people forward,” Longworth said. “The answer is to get an education system that is working together, where transitions (between high school and college) are less distinct, where they have the goal of keeping people moving.”

Senior Writer Ron French joined Bridge in 2011 after having won more than 40 national and state journalism awards since he joined the Detroit News in 1995. French has a long track record of uncovering emerging issues and changing the public policy debate through his work. In 2006, he foretold the coming crisis in the auto industry in a special report detailing how worker health-care costs threatened to bankrupt General Motors.

* Mitch Bean is a member of the Bridge Board of Advisers.

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Jeff Salisbury
Tue, 05/08/2012 - 8:38am
If our colleges and universities REALLY objected to offering remedial classes (they don't actually since they are HUGE money makers - same tuition rate as 100 or 200 level courses and all taught by non-tenure faculty), they could end "open-enrollment" policies. "Remedial" students fill dorms, buy meal plans, purchase textbooks and course materials just as their so-called "college-ready" counterparts. Community Colleges, historically and by often by charter are open to all students of all ages and backgrounds and skill-levels and which already offer lower tuition rates, are actually EXPECTED to offer remedial courses...not universities. Let's stop whining and complaining about this topic of university remedial course offerings. Instead, let's encourage those universities to tighten up their admissions policies, raise their standards and encourage "not ready for prime time" students to enroll in community colleges and/or vocational training schools, many of which in Michigan are as fine as they come in this country.
Tue, 05/08/2012 - 9:55am
Mr. Salisbury, you have hit the nail on the head. I especially like your comment on vocational education. A typical voc-ed graduate will out earn some of the degree recipients at 4 year colleges, and also have a better chance at constant employment.
Tue, 05/08/2012 - 12:09pm
Michigan is full of deep in-debt college graduates of all ages. If your lucky enough to get into medical school then a degree is certainly a ticket to somewhere. More important is who you know which drives parents to Ivy League colleges. However, this is no guarantee. My wife has a Master Degree from Harvard in architecture and has been unemployed here for more than three years. What is needed is more affordable college costs (Germany is free.) so people of all ages can get the training they need as demand changes. In a global economy, everyone is in remedial status as we discovered in the case of derivatives. What business has figured out decades ago that the media has not, is that you can import qualified professionals legally or low-skilled workers illegally much more quickly and cheaply. to meet demand and lay them off with fewer consequences. What took 1000 workers in 1950 can now be produced with 177. The college educated are not immune. Everyone that wants to be a nurse no longer can due to the increased cost and competition. Nursing schools are flooded with college graduates and undergraduates that transferred from other majors or careers for a sure bet. They may not be the best nurses but they will be "qualified".
Chuck Fellows
Tue, 05/08/2012 - 3:32pm
This, like every other alleged issue or problem with education, is really old news. Remedial education has been in place since 1942. Our current educational structure has been in place since 1892. It is past time for academics and educational professional to stop blaming students, parents, politics, teachers, culture and look at the system of education that they cling to. The factory model one size fits all, curriculum silo, common core, standardized test, uniformity and conformity driven process that is near and dear to your hearts and minds NO LONGER WORKS, and never really did work really well once education was opened up to the masses. An educational monoculture has been created and is feeding upon itself, rejecting the reality of diversity at every turn, tinkering around the edges with old tactics attached to new names. Get some courage - look in the mirror. I have seen the enemy and they are us. The current institution called education has outlived its usefulness.
Stephen Case
Tue, 05/08/2012 - 4:39pm
To me, this seems to be an absolute indictment of the High Schools in our state. In an era where a college degree is almost an absolute, ANY child being graduated who isn't ready for college is one that slipped through the cracks. We should all be ashamed that this happens if even ONE student is not prepared for the 'next step' in life. Isn't that the purpose of educating our children, to ready them to be members of society as productive citizens? To create a society that becomes better and stronger with each successive generation? If not, we should ban the whole principal of society paying for educating our kids and leave it to those who can simply afford it.
Cornell DeJong
Wed, 05/09/2012 - 8:42am
Remedial courses are only the tip of the iceberg. In the past, high schools never pretended to prepare everyone for college. Is that really possible, even with a massive infusion of resources? A significant proportion of college grads do not really possess technical skills or high quality thinking and communication abilities. A problem with colleges shifting to an emphasis on retention is that the goal of retention is in part achieved by watering down the performance expectations of students. Grades are considerably inflated over what they were 20 years ago, and the message given to faculty is to not fail students. After all, you can't extract their tuition dollars if they drop out. So we enroll students who are not prepared; we encourage them to run up a student loan tab, we give them easy courses and high grades so that they don't fail, and then we ship them off to society either without a degree at all or with a degree sans real skills and knowledge. High schools have been chastised for graduating students who can't read or perform basic calculations; I think colleges are shifting to the same model. Fund them on the basis of how many students they graduate, and colleges will respond by graduating more students, even if they can't perform in the workplace.