A growing number of community college systems, in California, Florida, Louisiana, Tennessee, Texas, New York City and elsewhere, have stopped requiring students to take remedial courses before they can enroll in college-level courses—the long-standing model for remedial education. With this policy change, states have lifted a significant barrier to college progress that affects millions of students and disproportionately impacts first-generation and low-income students and students of color.
These systems are setting an example for other systems and individual community colleges to follow. Hopefully, others will follow suit. However, hundreds of thousands of students across the country attend colleges that still require traditional remedial courses. These students should not have to wait for system leaders to adopt policies in line with over a decade of research finding that traditional remediation is ineffective at preparing students for college. Instead, community college students should go directly to college administrators and say no to remedial placements. They should point out that these courses add time and cost to the pursuit of a college degree and, most importantly, don’t work.
Some of the most important changes in polices governing access to higher education have occurred as a result of grassroots movements led by the communities who were marginalized by those policies. Students and families possess a great deal of power to sway institutional policy in community colleges, should they choose to seize it. Historically, the majority of community college students has been placed into remedial courses, most often in math. If these students simply refused remedial placements and demanded alternatives, colleges would be forced to listen.
Students: refuse to take any prerequisite remedial courses. You should not have to take them. And by refusing, you can change the rules.
Remediation in community college is a huge obstacle to college access and success—though few Americans know what it is or understand the toll it takes on students. Most of us think of community colleges as open-access institutions that accept all students, regardless of their level of academic preparation. This is sort of true. Community colleges admit all students, but they maintain academic standards for access to “college-level” coursework, or courses that award credit toward degrees. When students enroll at a community college, they typically take placement tests, which are supposed to determine whether a student is “college-ready” in math and English. Students who score below thresholds for college-readiness are placed into remedial courses—sometimes several levels of remediation—which must be completed before students are allowed into college-level courses.
Essentially, remedial courses are review courses. They re-expose students to content they have not yet mastered or have forgotten to build the foundational knowledge and skills they need to be successful in college. That probably sounds reasonable enough. However, there are a couple of critical flaws. First, students must pay for remedial courses, just like any other college course, but they do not confer credit that counts toward a degree. In other words, students spend time and money satisfying remedial requirements but do not move any closer to graduation. Second, more than a decade of research shows that, for the great majority of students, remedial courses fail to improve their outcomes. At best, remediation diverts students into a remedial track that delays their progress. At worst, remediation contributes to students’ decisions to give up on their college goals and drop out before they have even gotten started.
As a higher education researcher, I work with community colleges all over the country and have conducted a lot of research on remediation. I am constantly surprised by how many colleges still require students to complete lengthy sequences of traditional remedial courses. To me, remediation is a kind of educational malpractice. How can colleges mandate that students spend time and money on classes that are supposed to make them college-ready when they don’t make them college-ready? Evidence has long been building for reforms to traditional remediation, including changes to testing and placement and new course models that allow “remedial” students to enter directly into college-level courses while receiving academic support to help them be successful (called corequisite remediation).
Despite negative impacts, students tend to have surprisingly uncritical views on remedial courses. When I interviewed students about being placed into remedial courses, and often retaking them several times, they usually shrugged. Students view remediation as a requirement that they have little choice but to comply with and that might ultimately benefit them, because that’s what college staff tell them.
Low-income students, students of color and first-generation students are overrepresented in remediation. Students from these backgrounds tend to have less knowledge of how higher education institutions work, feel less entitled to ask for help and consequently tend to be less successful at securing individual accommodations. One student I talked to took the remedial course without protest, despite having test scores that should have exempted him from remediation:
At first, I was like, I thought I wouldn’t have to take remedial math, because we were supposed to reach an 80 on your Regents, and I got an 81, so I didn’t think I was going to have to take it. But after [being placed into remediation] my mind-set just changed. I was like, I might as well just try to make the most of it, and that’s it.
This student, like many I spoke to, tried to make the best of a disappointing setback. Indeed, in my own research at the City University of New York community colleges, I’ve found that about a third of remedial students repeat courses, retaking the exact same course two or more times, to meet requirements for access to college-level courses. Their perseverance and willingness to look for the bright side are admirable, but we should not exploit their resilience and ask them to navigate structures that do not work. Students’ perceptions that they are individually responsible for their outcomes hampers their ability to advocate for themselves or negotiate effectively to change institutional policy. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
So, community college students, if you are told to take remedial courses (these are typically English and math courses with course numbers less than 100), ask to meet with the chair of the English or math department, the vice president of academic affairs (or the provost, as these roles will have different titles at different colleges), and the college president. Better yet, connect with other students who are also required to take remedial courses and meet with college officials together. Ask the officials how they can continue to justify requiring traditional remediation given that research shows that it is ineffective. Show them this study, which reviewed 10 years of research and concludes that students should have access to college-level courses. Tell them you refuse to pay for courses that are ineffective and the college should not require that you do so. Tell them that you want to be successful in college, but you don’t believe that the remedial model that the college offers will help you meet that goal. Demand access to college-level courses and the supports you need to succeed. The evidence backs you up.