The College Puzzle Blog
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Dr. Michael W. Kirst

Michael W. Kirst is Professor Emeritus of Education and Business Administration at Stanford University since 1969.
Dr. Kirst received his Ph.D. in political economy and government from Harvard. Before joining the Stanford University faculty, Dr. Kirst held several positions with the federal government, including Staff Director of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Manpower, Employment and Poverty. He was a former president of the California State Board of Education. His book From High School to College with Andrea Venezia was published by Jossey Bass in 2004.

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My blog discusses the important and complex subjects of college completion, college success, student risk factors (for failing), college readiness, and academic preparation. I will explore the pieces of the college puzzle that heavily influence, if not determine, college success rates.

College Success and Incidence of Remediation

A Webster dictionary definition of remedial is to correct poor study or reading habits. But this generic definition does not provide sufficient guidance to understand college remediation, a complicated multi-disciplinary process that differs between institutions across the country.

At most broad-access open-enrollment colleges, two- and four-year students take a placement test at the start of their first year. Because admissions is not a hurdle, postsecondary institutions need placement tests as a method to place students in regular credit bearing courses or in special remedial courses. Most colleges define remediation as course work that is below college level work.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of tests are used, so it is difficult to understand the knowledge and skills required of entering students. California community colleges, for example, use more than 100 different tests. Texas has a required statewide placement exam, but many colleges and universities in Texas use there own exam for placement. The most widely used placement tests are constructed by ETS and ACT, but many others are designed by higher education departments or faculty at individual campuses. On one hand, this makes sense, given differing institutional missions, but a case can be made that the current situation is confusing for everyone involved. Students cannot be well informed about what they need to know in order to avoid remediation. There is a wide range of acceptable student-performance levels, and tracking the proportion of students that need remedial education is virtually impossible. Indeed, estimates of the number and percent of remedial students are all over the place. None of the experts are comfortable with any of the current definitions.


The official federal Department of Education remedial rates are among the lowest, 42% in two-year, and 20% in four years for at least one course. Other indicators are much higher. The academic Senate of the California Community Colleges found far more than half of their entering students were placed at a level below college readiness. ACT found in 2005 that only 51% of ACT tested high school graduates met its College Readiness Benchmarks for reading (most community college students do not take ACT, so this is probably an estimate of four-year remediation). Another ACT study concluded that only 22% of 1.2 million high school seniors tested in 2004 met their college benchmarks in college biology, algebra, and English composition.

It appears that many more students than those who are labeled remedial are not ready for college. The Southern Regional Education Board declared that the college-readiness problem is perhaps twice as large as the current remedial program statistics suggest. Most states have not set a student academic readiness standard for the various segments of public higher education. Moreover, my examination of college course catalogs in six states indicates that many non-remedial regular credit courses, such as intermediate algebra, should be mastered in high school.

After synthesizing data from many sources, my estimates for the need, nationally, are 55% in two-year colleges and 30% in four year institutions, but I am not confident that this is correct. In sum, we do not accurately know at the national and state levels how many students need remedial education, what it costs, how many take it, how many complete it successfully, and what happens to those students after they complete those courses. And students can not prepare for college-level work ahead of time, because remedial and college-level standards are not connected to high school expectations, nor are they advertised to K-12 educators, students, or parents.

The technical calculations of remediation all have problems. All three U.S. Department of Education methods underestimate it. At the national level, the Postsecondary Education Quick Information System (USDOE)is a survey of two- and four-year schools. The unit of analysis is institution, not the student. It is very doubtful that college officials include all remedial students in their survey answers, because it is not in their interest to tell the public about high remediation rates. Remediation rates are also derived from the Department Beginning Postsecondary Education student surveys, but remediation is self-reported by students and all ages are mixed together. So it is safe to assume that remediation is under-reported in general, and there is no way to parse out the number of students who attend college immediately after high school and need remediation.

Older students might need remediation because they have not been in a classroom for a long time. When younger students need remediation, it can be an indication of broken K-16 systems that are not serving students well. Another approach is to analyze transcripts from databases like the National Education Longitudinal Studies (NELS). The U.S. Department of Education’s staff must make judgments about which course titles on transcripts are classified as remedial. Although Departmental staff has multiple checks in place to ensure accuracy, this is a judgment game. Moreover, NELS is a decade old and a number of indications suggest remediation has increased since 1995.

Remediation rates are very murky at the institutional level as well. While researching these issues, I found that remediation rates at Southern Illinois University (SIU) at Carbondale was 5.6% and at San Jose State 51%. The entering students at these two institutions did not seem all that different. I discovered that SIU transports students to a nearby community college, so the remedial student shows up in the community college reports. All analysts agree that there has been remedial outsourcing by four-year to two-year institutions in the last decade.

Students do not seem aware of their remedial risks that results in non-credit courses and cause more time to degree/certificate, more money, and increased probability of dropping out. In a 2001 survey of freshmen conducted by UCLA of four-year colleges, only 9% reported they would need special tutoring or remedial work in English, but many more students need remedial education once they start at a four-year college. The University of Wyoming is publicizing a new scholarship program for secondary students with a 2.5 grade point average and ACT score of 17. For many other institutions, an ACT score of 17 indicates that a student needs remedial education.

What can be done about having more consistent, reliable, and valid remediation rate data? Secondary and postsecondary education need to create a process to define and measure remediation based on curriculum content and assessment standards for specific subjects. Remediation standards need to be communicated clearly to secondary students, and linked to K-12 assessments that indicate whether high school students are ready for college. These K-16 standards need to be embedded in college placement tests that are aligned with K-12 tests. Students need to know that admission to college is not a permission slip to take college-credit courses immediately upon starting college.

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