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Remedial classes, certificates have a lot in common

There’s a big debate over the impact of remedial classes at the community college level. Remedial classes have no transfer value. Ostensibly, they’re designed to build or recover necessary skills that students either no longer possess or never developed. Math, English and writing are among the most common remedial classes. Institutions like WCC slot students into remedial courses based on placement tests administered to incoming students.

The debate rages, however, because most students who end up in remedial courses are minorities. According to a 2018 study, 56% of Black students and 45% of Latinx students enroll in remedial courses. Problematically, remedial courses appear to have the opposite of their intended effect. Instead of building skills students have “lost” or never had, they impede the student’s academic progress. They also decrease the chance that they’ll complete a degree.

For students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, extra courses that don’t count toward a degree or transfer to another school (but still cost the same as ones that do) simply raise their cost of attendance and create barriers to success. Some schools have eliminated remedial classes in favor of co-requisites that help students acquire or improve the skills they need while still making direct academic progress.

Like certificates, remedial classes have a $0 ROI

The California assembly may soon consider a bill that would prevent colleges from requiring students to take (or retake) courses involuntarily that they passed while in high school. California law already bars community colleges from relying on placement tests to assess incoming students. Instead, community colleges must accept high school coursework as proof that students attained the required entry level skills.

That approach is having the intended effect. Prior to passage, only about half of students passed transferrable English courses at the state’s two year colleges. Following passage, that number rose to two-thirds. Similarly, only about 25% of students passed transferrable math courses prior to the change in state law. Following the law’s adoption, the number of students passing transferrable math classes rose to 50%. Advocates attribute the improved passage rate to students who at one time would have gotten stuck in remedial classes.

Intentionally or not, remediation is one way to frustrate student success. It’s not much different than offering a raft of short-term certificate programs to minority and older students, when the known outcome of these programs is a $0 return on investment for the student. (The actual ROI – when factoring in acquisition costs and the opportunity cost associated with lost time – is likely negative for these programs.)

In the same way that community colleges need to eliminate the practice of requiring worthless classes, they must also wean themselves from the gravy they collect from offering worthless short-term certificate programs.

A certificate program comprised of worthless classes is still worthless at the end of the day.

Photo Credit: wintertwined , via Flickr