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Rethinking Remediation

How we can improve the way we prepare students for college-level coursework
Photo of Academic Dean Bridget Terry Long

A growing body of research suggests that college remediation programs — meant to bolster the skills of students deemed underprepared for the rigors of postsecondary study — seem to make very little positive difference to students, and may even have a negative effect on overall success in college.

A consensus for change is developing, but as Bridget Terry Long points out in a new policy proposal commissioned by the Hamilton Project, reform efforts often sidestep substantial questions about how to improve academic preparation and — importantly — help students avoid remedial placement altogether.

Conversations about access to higher education often focus on affordability issues, but poor academic preparation is an equally significant barrier to success in college, says Long, academic dean at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Studies show that more than one-third of all first-year college students are required — as a result of placement tests — to take some form of remedial coursework in either English or mathematics; the number is far higher at some institutions. But these courses — in which students are effectively paying college-level prices for high-school classes — often don’t count toward degree requirements and can significantly delay a student’s progress, making it more likely that impediments will arise. A prolonged path to a degree can also affect the financial aid picture, due to time limits in aid eligibility, potentially putting graduation out of reach.

“The fact that we have 35 to 40 percent of our first-year students going into remediation — or developmental courses, as they are sometimes called — has so many important implications,” says Long. Among other concerns, “it raises the question of whether or not students are actually getting postsecondary training in college, or whether the higher education system is spending too much time simply trying to address the problems of the K-12 system.”

In her policy memo, outlined at a June 2014 conference called Addressing America’s Poverty Crisis, Long offers three recommendations for addressing the academic preparation problem and thinking “much more deliberately about how to help students.”

  • Improve the assessment process. Better assessment will help colleges tailor their support services and reduce the number of students who are unnecessarily placed into remediation. Rather than relying on a single assessment test, institutions could use a variety of other measures, such as high school grade point average and courses taken. Long says that current assessment methods and benchmarks vary widely, even among public universities within the same state. For instance, when she and her colleagues looked at Florida’s experience in the early 2000s, “we saw that institutions were applying the state policy differently. Some institutions let students retake the test as many times as they wanted until they could pass out of remediation, while others did not,” she says. Such differences contributed to another potential inequity, as more affluent students knew to push for the chance to retake the test, while others accepted the results and entered the long process of remediation.
  • Improve the remediation services. By using technology, one-to-one support services, and innovative pedagogies, college remediation programs could do a much better and faster job of helping to prepare students for future success in college-level courses. Various approaches — mainstreaming (placing students into college-level courses and providing additional supports), linked remedial and college-level courses, and technology-enhanced learning (for example, using short, computer-based modules to reinforce difficult subjects) — have all showed benefits in pilot programs. The idea is to look beyond the large classrooms and “chalk and talk” approaches that may not have worked the first time around.
  • Reduce the need for remediation. Students and families often believe, understandably, that if they meet the requirements for high school graduation, it means they are prepared for postsecondary study. This is often not the case. Better alignment between K-12 and postsecondary curricula — and more cohesive standards for exiting high school and entering college — could help eliminate confusion and gaps. Several states, including California, Ohio, North Carolina, and Kentucky, are encouraging students to take college readiness assessments in high school so that they can use this early information to make better high school course selections and avoid remediation altogether.

Read the full text of Long’s policy proposal, or download the Hamilton Project’s e-book Policies to Address Poverty in America, which contains anti-poverty proposals from Long and 13 other experts. 

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