Remedial classes create hidden burden for students and taxpayers

By: Abby Ivory-Ganja, Lauren Magarino, Yutao Chen, Lily Oppenheimer

When a student walks across the stage to receive their high school diploma, the assumption is they’re ready for the next phase of their life. But some college-bound students aren’t ready for that step.

Some students will have to take remedial classes when they enter higher education. These kinds of courses can have different names—preparatory courses at MU, developmental classes at Moberly Area Community College—but they do the same thing: teach material that should’ve been taught in high school. Students have to pay for these classes, but they do not contribute toward the completion of a student’s degree. Students must complete the remedial course before moving on to introductory college courses, and their grade can count toward their GPA. Many four-year colleges don’t offer the remedial courses students need, so they’re forced to turn to community colleges to bridge the gap. Either way, students needing remediation face more barriers.

“It’s reported that students who require remedial coursework in college have significantly higher odds of never completing their degree,” Karen Buschmann, vice president of communication for the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said. “By ignoring the problem, we are setting up our students to fail.”

A nationwide report from nonpartisan groups the Education Post and Education Reform Now shows remedial classes do create a burden for students. The financial cost is high as well. In 2011, the report showed nearly one in four college students had to enroll in remedial courses, which creates a financial strain. Students have to pay $1.5 billion annually -- including $380 million in student loans – in order to catch up. Buschmann believes this hidden cost of college is a burden for students, as well as tax-payers.

“It’s a drag on our economy and taxpayers because we’re paying twice in so many cases to educate our students,” Buschmann said.

Buschmann said some chamber employees noticed the “output of our students was concerning to employers.” She said the chamber commissioned a survey of more than 1,000 Missouri CEOs and found that only 15 percent of employers believe Missouri high schools adequately prepare students for the workplace. After seeing this trend, the chamber took note and earlier this year, it supported Senate Bill 638. SB 638 was sponsored by Sen. Jeanie Riddle, R-Mokane, and requires every school district to develop a system to identify ninth grade students who are at risk of not being ready for college-level work or entry-level career positions. In June, Gov. Jay Nixon signed this bill into law.

Thousands of Missouri high school graduates start pursuing their bachelor’s degree with a lack of skills and knowledge necessary for college-level education every year. They are required to take remedial courses that do not count toward their degree. This map shows the remediation rates among mid-Missouri public high schools with data available from 2014. Different groupings of the same color represent each county. 

Source: Missouri Department of Higher Education
Credit: Yutao Chen, Lily Oppenheimer, Abby Ivory-Ganja, and Lauren Magarino

Mark Ehlert, associate research professor of economics at the University of Missouri, recognizes the scale of this issue and says remedial classes may not be the most effective way to place students and address preparedness.

“We take children in the public school system who have different achievement as well as different abilities and we put them in an education system that pushes everyone through a pipeline at the same speed with the same instruction,” he said.

Ehlert has more than 25 years of experience working with education data. He believes co-requisite programs could be more beneficial for students. Currently if a student doesn’t score high enough on an assessment like the ACT or SAT, they’ll be placed into a remedial class. Instead, a co-requisite program would place that student into the introductory course with additional support. 

In this model, it may take more than one semester to complete the introductory class. But eventually, students will get the basic and fundamental skills they didn’t learn in high school while staying on their campus.

“It’s going to take longer. You can’t expect (to learn all those skills) in the same 20 weeks than kids who were prepared can do,” Ehlert said.

Whether or not a co-requisite program is more affective than remedial classes, it’s still a band-aid on a bigger problem.  If elementary and secondary education classes were more challenging, fewer students would need remedial classes, said Matt Boyer, a counselor at Sturgeon High School.  

“High schools need to do a better job of trying to instill more rigorous courses that are relevant to students,” Boyer said.

Ultimately, eliminating the need for remedial classes will alleviate financial and academic stress on students. Without that barrier, Missouri students will be better equipped to enter the workforce.