Are remedial classes helpful or harmful? WSJ investigates.

Researchers and educators worry they may be doing more harm than good

The federal government is spending record amounts on remedial courses for community college students, yet mounting evidence suggests the courses—as designed—may be doing more harm than good, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Students who don't meet proficiency are often placed into remedial courses before they can begin taking classes for credit. The number of students in such courses has dramatically increased in recent years, alongside rising enrollments in community colleges.

Since 2000, the amount of federal aid to students taking at least one remedial course increased 380% after inflation. In 2012, $4.6 billion in Pell grants was distributed to these students.

Some students "are getting stuck"

Experts point out that remedial courses are designed to open up access to college for students who would otherwise not be able to attend. The classes help new students build skills, usually in math and English, to the level required for introductory college courses.

However, some educators argue the courses may be doing more harm than good. Eloy Oakley, president of Long Beach City College (LBCC), says “you clearly see that a big part of the problem is that students of color, first-generation students in low socioeconomic status are getting stuck."

Recent research supports that view. A 2012 National Bureau of Economic Research study found students who were misplaced into remedial courses were 8% more likely to drop out. The courses can be discouraging, especially for borderline students who scored just below the proficiency cutoff.

Efforts to innovate

Schools across the country have begun changing their remedial programs to reduce the number of students who "get stuck," Oakley says. In Florida, community college students who test into remedial classes can now choose whether they want to participate or begin for-credit coursework immediately.

LBCC has done away with using standardized tests to place students into remedial education. Instead, they now rely on high school GPA, because they have found it is better predictor of success. Under the initiative, the number of students starting regular classes immediately has tripled. On average, students who would have otherwise been in remedial classes under the old system are doing just as well as their peers, the school says (Mitchell, Wall Street Journal, 11/17).

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