Placing the Blame for Remedial Education

By Judy Cresanta
  • Wednesday, July 15, 1998

Who should pay for collegiate remedial education? A number of state governments have asked such a question, and are taking steps to cut back or eliminate remedial courses altogether for high school graduates who arrive at colleges unprepared in reading, math and English. With each successive year universities have been asked to cover the costs of correcting the failures of the nation’s public schools. For a decade they have carried this burden in relative silence. But no more. Now they have the motivation and the will to hold the lower public grades accountable. It’s called the budget squeeze. Will Nevada’s state legislature give our own University and Community College System similar authority?

A Survey of the Country

The number of high school graduates who require remedial courses in one or more subjects when they enter college has grown into an avalanche nationwide. Nearly one third of all college freshmen are in need of remedial courses. Eighty percent of all institutions that enroll freshmen offer remediation—teaching students what they should have learned in earlier grades. This is imposing excess costs on our colleges and universities, which are already strapped for funds. College administrators are beginning to complain loudly about having to foot the bill, and as a result are taking draconian measures to solve the problem.

This year, 64 percent of freshmen entering the California state college system failed the entry-level math test, and 43 percent failed the verbal exam—even though all of them were in the top third of their graduating high school classes. Even at University of California campuses, 35 percent of entering freshmen needed remedial instruction in basic English proficiency. In New York, 87 percent of students entering one of the City University's (CUNY) six community colleges failed at least one initial exam. It has became so costly that, under the urging of Mayor Rudy Giuliani, New York has stopped admitting students who fail basic math, reading and writing tests.

Community colleges are no different. A 1995 federal survey found that 41 percent of college freshmen at public two-year colleges took at least one remedial course, and only 23 percent of those who started at such institutions went on to complete their education (either a community college degree or a bachelor's degree) within five years. At the University of Georgia, regents voted last year to limit the number of freshmen needing remedial work. Massachusetts colleges and universities will cut the proportion of freshmen needing remedial help from 10 percent of entrants to 5 percent. In addition, Massachusetts and with four other states are considering charging in-state high schools for the cost of remediation. Florida, Nebraska, South Carolina and Virginia resorted to prohibiting remedial education altogether. It was simply too expensive.

What About Nevada?

In 1996-7, only 36 percent of graduating seniors went on to college, leaving the state dead last in the nation in post-high school education. The national average is 58.5 percent, with New York and North Dakota at the top of the list with 71 percent.

According to a communiqué from John A. Richardson, Vice Chancellor of Academic affairs for University and Community College System of Nevada (UCCSN), for the fall 1996 semester, UCCSN institutions admitted a total of 5,596 freshmen students under the age of 20. Of those entering freshmen, 4,210 were from Nevada high schools, 1,351 were from out of state and other high schools, and 35 were categorized "other." During that same semester, a total of 1,883 freshmen students from Nevada high schools attending UCCSN institutions were enrolled in developmental education classes. Thus, 44.7 percent of the freshmen entering UCCSN institutions from Nevada high schools required some form of developmental education experience.

What Can Nevada Do?

The estimated cost of developmental instruction for Nevada high school graduates at UCCSN institutions during the fall 1996 semester was $1,800,474. The cost of educating all out-of-state remedial students attending colleges and universities in Nevada was $2,496,373. With university budgets stretched and department heads searching for ways to expand programs while not expanding budgets, what can they do? University officials might want to borrow ideas from other states.

Massachusetts legislators have taken a novel approach which looks to the source of the problem for responsibility. They charge the high school for the cost of readying students for mainstream classes. "Secondary education has gone through two decades of so-called reforms which have amounted to nothing but excuses," said one Massachusetts legislator. "They have demanded more money for education and received it; they have smaller class sizes; they have higher salaries and more benefits to attract ‘better’ teachers; more computers; better textbooks; and better facilities. Short of throwing the institution of public education on the ash heap, what’s left to produce a more qualified student?"

His fellow legislators reasoned that perhaps the same motivation employed by the private sector, namely, a competitive bottom line, would help. Other more draconian measures range from capping the number of students admitted who need remediation to eliminating all qualifying courses altogether.

But the most logical solution to the problem of college remediation follows the wisdom of several old sayings: Let the punishment fit the crime; let the high schools pay the bill for the less-than-stellar job they’ve done.

Judy Cresanta is the president of the Nevada Policy Research Institute. She can be contacted at

blog comments powered by Disqus