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Colleges Rethink Remedial Education to Get Students on Course to Graduation

More states are moving away from remedial education, finding the noncredit classes are more of a detour than an on-ramp to a college degree.

The classes, typically assigned to first-year students who fail a basic readiness test, are designed to bolster their knowledge base on core academic subjects. The courses cost students and institutions roughly $7 billion a year. But studies show that teacher preparation for remedial courses is often weak, student motivation is low and pass rates are even lower.

The California State University System, the largest public system in the country, recently decided to scrap traditional remediation classes, joining Colorado, Indiana, Tennessee, West Virginia and Florida in moving to rethink the system.

“No one has been very happy with [the remedial system] for a while,” said Lynn Mahoney, provost and vice president for academic affairs at California State University, Los Angeles. “We’ve been nibbling around the edges to fix this. Now, we’re going to start a new approach.”

Next fall, instead of remedial classes, Cal State Los Angeles students who fail the assessment test will simultaneously take college-level and new basic skills classes, which Dr. Mahoney said will help fill in the holes for less-prepared students as they need it.

Only 37% of American 12th-graders were academically prepared for college math and reading in 2015, according to the latest available National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the “Nation’s Report Card.”

Each of the 23 campuses in the California State University System will give its own twist to the basic skills classes. At Cal State Los Angeles, courses will be targeted at students’ college-credit classes. For example, if a student is taking a sociology class and needs help with statistics, he or she would only learn the math applicable for that class. A typical remedial course would cover much more ground, said Dr. Mahoney.

The push to shake up remedial education has been gaining momentum across the country as universities struggle to improve anemic graduation rates—often dragged down by the same students most in need of help.

For the class of students who started in 2009, the six-year graduation rate across the California State University System was 66% for students who didn’t need any remedial classes. It was 45% for those who took remedial classes in both math and English.

Low success rates for students who need remedial classes is an even more pronounced problem at community colleges, where nearly two thirds of students are placed in at least one remedial class but fewer than one in five pass the germane college course, according to the Columbia University’s Community College Research Center.