Our Universities: The Cost of Remediation

Third in the series Follow the Money

Any expert in efficiency will tell you the same thing: “Do it right the first time.” Doing it a second time costs twice as much.

1 + 1 = 2

Perhaps the most valuable result of all education is the ability to make yourself do the thing you have to do, when it ought to be done, whether you like it or not.

Walter Bagehot (1826-77) Physics and Politics, 1879


Can’t or won’t pass English 101 or Algebra 101 in high school? No problem. The university will fix it.

Students are borrowing money to take courses which were available at no charge from their high school. Our universities are taking on remedial work that is not their business, and it costs them. More importantly, it hurts all students, not just the ones taking remedial classes. I will not blame secondary schools, primary schools or parents. Resources committed to remediation cannot be used to benefit students who have prepared themselves well for university study. Furthermore, remedial efforts are frequently for naught. U.S. Department of Education data for 2004 indicates that only 17% of the students who take remedial courses graduate.

In the 2007-2008 school year, it was estimated by The Alliance for Excellent Education that the cost of remediation was about $3.6 billion nationally. Most students leaving high school with a Grade Point Average of 3.0 think they are prepared to begin university- level study. However, Jane V. Wellman, director of the Delta Project on Post Secondary Education, says 40% of them need at least one remedial course.

Often, universities take in unprepared, underperforming students in an effort to create cash flow, forcing students and exploited taxpayers to foot the bill for their misrepresentation of what it takes to succeed in study.

Lower-cost, lower-risk alternatives are available. The least expensive approach all around is for students to do well the first time in high school. On those occasions when a student needs remediation, he or she should have to pick up the whole tab with no loan money of any kind. The value of something increases when we have some skin in the game. Community colleges are ideal for this situation because their mission includes providing preparatory and introductory material efficiently and inexpensively.

All of this may sound cold-hearted. A second chance is a powerful, transforming opportunity, but not when it denies responsible students a first chance when they’ve shown themselves ready. Second chances should be given only when a student demonstrates a willingness to remake themselves.

What seems truly cold-hearted is encouraging a student to take out a loan for an asset that is statistically unlikely to materialize. Saying “You can!” when “You can’t,” or “You won’t” is pilfering aspiration. Universities owe students an honest appraisal of their potential. Sugarcoating their prospects, whether to spare their feelings or to secure the benefit of their loan awards payments, is unethical and lying by any other name.

For too many people, universities are turning into a decades long sentence to a debtor’s prison without walls – confinement of opportunity, the most debilitating form of incarceration in a free society.

Hard work is the stuff middle class lives are made of – hard knocks sometimes, too. Many immigrants are willing to separate themselves from family and friends to get a piece of the Jeffersonian dream. It’s too bad that this type of determination can’t be grafted onto assumptive students who have not recognized that the rewards earned through higher education require thoughtful and, at times, sacrificial choices. They are not gifts granted from above. They are the consequence of extraordinary effort, a responsibility to be coveted by an individual learner, not a right to be carved up for all.

Financial reality holds true in all institutions: universities, regional and liberal arts campuses and teachers’ colleges. Educating competent teachers is so important that the nation spent approximately $130.5 billion in 2008 to achieve this goal according to Philanthropic Investment in Teachers And Teaching, by Kathleen deMarrais of the University of Georgia. To undermine that commitment is an irrational use of scarce resources. Likewise, educating professionals in STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) consumes about $3.5 billion from the budget of the National Science Foundation, Department of Education, and the Department of Defense according to A Report from the Federal Inventory of STEM Education Fast-Track Action Committee, December, 2011. The money spent on remediation could increase resources available to invest in such projects.

When compared to the total investment in universities, remedial coursework is modest, a few billion dollars. However, education dollars are becoming an ever scarcer resource. Remediation spends the time, energy, and talent of students and faculty who could be making better use of all three.

Resources should be directed into investments where they will pay the greatest dividends, not do-overs. The hidden costs to students, universities and our nation of dashed dreams, debt, discouragement and disdain for education are without known bounds.

Our universities need to follow the roadmap of money to functional fidelity, not to a fool’s paradise.




5 thoughts on “Our Universities: The Cost of Remediation

  1. Another posting that one can not argue against. Recently, restrictions have mysteriously been removed from one of my classes limited to juniors and seniors that involves writing skills. As a result, our departmental secretary has sent an email to all registered students stressing the necessity of writing papers for this class. One prospective student actually contacted me to ask whether any writing is demanded in this class! For a university currently engaged in sound bites about freshmen engaing in high-powered research with faculty, this is another con-game. That is, unless I’m mistaken and a non-achieving freshman can actually achieve Nobel Prize winning contributions to nuclear physics and mathematics?

  2. Whatever your feelings about the Center for Academic Success at SIU (or whatever its latest acronym is), the effectiveness of that program has been gutted by incorporating it into the unfunded mandate of UCOL. In effect, remedial courses (that is, the very few underutilized non-matriculating courses) and special CAS sections (that is, matriculating courses with the same content as non CAS sections but different pedagogical methods) are a thing of the past. The answer now appears to be to bring in the students insufficiently prepared for university work, take their dime, and offer them precious little assistance or support.

    This blog post appears to be addressed to students rather than universities, and I appreciate the advice you give to students making life decisions. Your implicit message: don’t trust our college recruiters any more than you should a military recruiter (the brochure is not the territory). Relying on community colleges to do the work of prepping the unprepared for university work seems logical, but that means your university must compete and compete well for non “remedial” students to fill seats and pay tuition.

    The post also implies that money put into remedial courses pulls from resources to enhance programs that will attract better, more prepared students. I see no real evidence of that at SIU, where our efforts at remedial courses and at-risk student support is pretty thin and poorly funded. I don’t think our failure (relatively speaking) to attract a higher caliber of student can be pinned to our efforts at helping at-risk student.

    Instead, we seem to pursue prepared students, and when their numbers are insufficient, we lower our standards in the summer and admit folks much less prepared for college. The solution to this problem is, perhaps, to stick by our standards and take the hit on enrollment. And of course, after enough years of that, we’ll need to increase tuition again and again, losing our “lowest tuition in the state” status.

    In the end, I think it comes down to a struggle between who we are as a university and who some (!) of us would like to be. Do we acknowledge our history, including a long tradition of first generation college students and well-mentored special populations? Or do we abandon that population of students in favor of the students we think we should be teaching, assuming they will just come here because we deserve them?

  3. I think the days of SIUC offering the “lowest tuition in the State” are long past. Another worrying feature is the State’s new emphasis on graduation rates determining financial support. Does that mean we will have to lower standards and graduate incompetents to get money? I’m sure several in higher administration have no qualms about this further devaluation of a university degree. When I arrived the attitude was that although SIUC would admit unqualified students, they had the opportunity to either “sink or swim.” With this new emphasis on retention even of the most non-achieving student, SIUC has to decide whether it still wants to be a real university or merge with John A. Logan College or become a vocational Center of “Excellent” Basic Skills.

  4. It certainly true that we ought to be honest with students in need of remediation about their chances for success. It’s also true that resources put into remedial programs won’t be available for students who don’t need remediation. The real problem as I see it isn’t that remediation costs money, but that it takes attention away from more qualified students. There’s too much need for remediation in regular classes. And the new SIUC UCOL 101 looks a lot like an attempt to remediate everyone, on the cheap, whether they need it or not, a course that won’t be enough for students who genuinely need extra help and will be a painfully boring experience for students genuinely ready for college.

    The solution to this problem outlined in this post, though, commonsensical as it may sound (pull yourself up by your own boot-straps or forget about college), is that it would undermine one of the major goals of current state and national public policy–increasing the percentage of US citizens with college degrees. Perhaps that policy is foolish, or impracticable; perhaps it will water down the meaning of a college education for everyone else. But this notion is so ingrained in our society that I don’t see it going away (rather like, say, home ownership for the masses–something which has also cost us). And there is an argument to be made that increased access is right on the economic merits: the rise of the US to economic dominance in the world was paralleled by our educational dominance, as measured by percentage of college grads–or at least that’s the story I’ve heard. We are now increasingly falling behind on many educational measures. Giving up on students needing remediation will obviously make it impossible for us to increase the proportion of college graduates.

    The only way to increase the number of college grads is for our society to put more “skin into the game”–or at least stop slashing funding for education. Students already have much at stake–and perhaps need to be more clearly told what their loans will mean after they graduate. But if our state and national governments continue to try to increase the number of college grads while cutting education spending, they are guaranteeing failure, both for students and for institutions like SIUC that have traditionally served many at risk students. We can’t call for students to be responsible when our government is irresponsibly failing to provide the means to meet the ends universities like SIUC are supposed to serve.

  5. A very eloquent reply, Dave. However, the problem with the increase of students with college degrees is that it is not as ingrained in society as you believe but rather imposed from above by those who want to make money out of those who are unqualified and unable to benefit from a college education. Some decades ago now disgraced Prime Minister Blair blurted out “Education! Education! Education!” The result was too many students going into higher education who ended up (especially Ph.D’s) stacking boxes in supermarkets and facing huge debts that will increase for those entering higher education today which already has a high drop out rate. It was also an easy way to manipulate the unemployment statistics. Many valuable polytechnics concentrating on science and technology were turned into joke universities with degrees offered in subjects such as gardening, catering studies, sports, and dubious media studies courses. (There are exceptions to the latter category, of course) That is the problem with over-emphasis on the academic and denigration of trades and professions not needing a degree. We need more plumbers, welders, builders etc who will contribute to the economy and those occupations need to be treated with respect. In the UK, the idea that every nurse should have a degree has led to many student nurses now refusing to handle patients! The days are gone when education received adequate funding and there should be other alternative routes to useful employment with the respect they deserve rather than over-emphasis on academic qualifications leading to grade inflation and devaluation of degrees themselves.

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