Remedial Education in Postsecondary Education

Overview

Remedial education is required instruction and support for learners who are assessed by their education institution of choice as being academically underprepared for postsecondary education. The intent of remedial education is to educate students in the skills that are required to complete gateway courses and enter and complete a program of study.

Remediation at the postsecondary level is delivered at both community college and university campuses although some states have established policy to limit public university provision of remedial education. 

The bulk of remedial courses focus on advancing underprepared students' literacy skills (English and reading) or math skills. However, remedial courses can also be offered for other subjects such as science, computer literacy, or study skills.

Students are often placed into remedial courses through placement tests such as the ACT, ACCUPLACER, or COMPASS assessments. Typically, each college or university sets its own score thresholds for determining whether a student must enroll in remedial courses. 

Many states have moved toward a uniform standard for remedial placement cut scores. Students are required to enroll in remedial courses before advancing to a college-level course in that subject. Particularly at community colleges—which offer open enrollment to any student with a high school degree or GED—multiple semesters of remedial coursework may be required of students who enter with low placement test scores.

Whether placement tests are an effective method of placing students is the subject of ongoing debate across the U.S. Some studies show that placement test scores are not especially good predictors of course grades in remedial education classes. Also, the tests have little explanatory power across a range of performance measures, including college grade point average (GPA), credit accumulation, and success in gatekeeper English and math classes. For these reasons, some colleges and states are experimenting with using high school GPA and placement test scores to determine student course referral. Using GPA with standardized test scores may also improve the accuracy of remedial placement and limit the likelihood of placing students into remedial courses they may not need. 

Estimates on the proportion of postsecondary students in remedial courses vary. At two-year colleges, the range of students taking at least one remedial course runs from 41% to 60%. Students from low-income households, African American students, and Hispanic students are more likely to be enrolled in remedial courses. National estimates show that among two-year college students, those ages 17-19 are most likely to enroll in remedial courses, followed by those ages 20-24, and then students ages 25 and older.

There is an active debate about whether students on the upper end of the skill spectrum may be most successful bypassing remedial coursework and enrolling in college-level courses with additional tutoring. In contrast, students with larger skill deficiencies may require substantial math and English instruction before they can succeed academically. 

Remedial education courses are delivered in many ways across the U.S.: 

  • traditional, semester-long courses
  • cohort models that group the same students together in a series of remedial courses
  • placing students in college-level courses with mandated tutoring or supplementary instruction (often known as a “just-in time” approach)
  • modularized courses that target particular skills
  • intensive, compressed courses that accelerate student readiness
  • courses that integrate remedial content with occupational skills
  • self-guided, computer-based courses that adapt to student skill deficiencies
  • online, in a computer-based, traditional semester model. 
  • summer preparation courses for students to enhance their readiness for college-level courses. 

A 2011 study found that the most effective remedial education provides modularized or compressed courses to allow students to more quickly complete their developmental work, or offer contextualized remedial education within occupational and vocational programs. 

In the past two decades, significant research has been done on why remedial education students fail, the growth of new evidence-based practice, and evaluations of college- and system-wide implementation strategies. Lessons from this research underscore the need for approaches that help unprepared learners receive academic and other supports they need to move quickly and effectively into and through a set of gateway courses aligned to programs of study that lead to a postsecondary credential. 

One of these major new approaches has been new math pathways in quantitative reasoning and statistics as alternatives for the traditionally required algebra and calculus pathways. “In the typical scenario, students take two years of algebra during high school that ideally prepares them for college-level math courses required to earn a four-year degree. In reality, many students end up taking one or both as remedial courses during college, based on their scores on placement tests. Algebra 2 is a graduation requirement for students pursuing an associate degree. Community college students seeking to transfer to four-year universities must also show proficiency in Algebra 2 on a placement test, or take a remedial class, before they can enroll in a college-level course required to transfer to a four-year university. Designed for community college students pursuing non-technical majors, the new math pathways place a greater priority on preparation in statistics and quantitative reasoning than in the traditional algebra-intensive course sequence. The alternative approaches are growing rapidly in community colleges. That’s in part because of promising early results, showing that students who attempt the new sequences are three to four times as likely to pass a college-level math course, such as Statistics, as students enroll in traditional remedial courses. It’s also because, while two years of algebra courses provide direct preparation for science and engineering majors, applied math courses such as Statistics are more relevant for students in many other academic fields, including the social sciences.”

Major reforms to develop and support alternative math pathways have been led by two organizations: 

  • Carnegie Math Pathways began more than ten years ago with the premise to enroll all students, regardless of their performance on placement exams, directly into college-level math. The initiative has shown that  students can succeed in classrooms that engage them in relevant, meaningful math, and hat nurture their sense of belonging and confidence in their own math abilities. Students in Carnegie Math Pathways courses succeed at triple the rate of their peers in half the time; and they go on to more college credits and transfer and graduate at higher rates. Called "corequisite approaches to remediation" these pathways are becoming standard practice across the U.S.
  • Charles A. Dana Center on at the University of Texas at Austin draws on more than two decades of research and experience, to focus on strategies for improving student engagement, motivation, persistence, and achievement in K–16 mathematics and science education.  It has focused major attention on reforms in mathematics education. A major contribution has been its toolkit to present nationally agreed-upon design principles for implementing corequisite mathematics and tools and resources to make these principles actionable. It supports faculty members, advisors and administrators in adopting corequisites that ensure college students – in particular those who are Black, Latinx, Indigenous, first-generation and from low-income communities gain access to gateway mathematics in their first year and are provided the supports they need to be successful.

Relation to Ecosystem

Remedial education is a key component of postsecondary college completion efforts. According to the U.S. Department of Education, four in 10 first-time college students will take a remedial course, and close to 65% of community college students will take remedial courses. Students required or encouraged to take remedial courses in college are often stymied in their educational path. For many learners, remedial courses do not count toward a student's graduation requirements. Therefore, students who take many semesters of remedial education can lengthen their path to graduation and exhaust much-needed financial aid. According to a study released by the Center for American Progress, remedial courses cost students dearly, causing some to even stop out. Innovations in remedial education are needed, especially modularizing and compressing courses and providing “just in time” options which offer learning that is contextualized within the student’s occupational and vocational interests. Such innovations can help learners improve their readiness for college courses and also help meet employers’ needs for a properly skilled workforce.

Examples

  • Single Semester Co-requisite
    • Austin Peay State University Structured Assistance
    • Community College of Baltimore City’s Accelerated Learning Project
  •  One-Year Course Pathway
    • Carnegie Statway/Quantway
    • Dana Center New Mathways
  • Embedded or Parallel Remediation in Career Technical Programs
    • Tennessee Technical Colleges
    • Washington I-BEST
  •  Accelerated Paths
    • California Acceleration Project
    • Competency-Based Options
  • Core Skills Mastery
    • Pearson’s My Foundations
    • ALEKS

Alternate Terms

  • Developmental education
  • Basic skills education
  • Compensatory education
  • Preparatory education
  • Academic upgrading
  • Co-requisite approaches to remediation
  • Embedded remediation

History

The passing of the Higher Education Act and the Civil Rights Act in the mid-1960s expanded the number of Americans who could attend college. With this influx of new students, including historically higher numbers of students of color and women, higher education needed a new system of sorting and placement—driven by the concern that more incoming students were unprepared for work at the college level.

In the early 2000s, research into assessment and placement systems bloomed. Studies found that remedial courses were discouraging to students’ completion and had little impact on student success. With the growth of this body of research and a cultural appetite for colleges to “meet students where they are,” state and institutional policy began to change.

Starting with Florida in 2013, states began implementing legislation that changed the reliance on remedial education. Connecticut, Tennessee, Texas, Louisiana, and California followed suit. The University System of Georgia, City University of New York, and the California Community Colleges also instituted alternatives to remedial education, including corequisite models. Corequisite models are when two courses are designed to be taken together in the same semester.  This allows students to enroll in college-level, credit-bearing courses while also enrolling in concurrent courses for just-in-time remediation, skills review, and/or coordinated academic support.

References

Burdman, P.  (2015, May 6). Building new pathways to math success. In EdSource

Calcagno, & Long. (2008, July 25). The Impact of Postsecondary Remediation Using a Regression Discontinuity Approach: Addressing Endogenous Sorting and Noncompliance | NBER. NBER. https://www.nber.org/papers/w14194

Chen et al., (2020). Courses Taken, Credits Earned, and Time to Degree: A First Look at the Postsecondary Transcripts of 2011–12 Beginning Postsecondary Students. Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.

Core Principles for Transforming Remedial Education: A Joint Statement. Charles A. Dana Center, Complete College America, Inc., Education Commission of the States, Jobs for the Future. December 2012     https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED539870.pdf

Fain & Johnson. (2022, October 12). Work Shift Explainer: California’s urgent work to reform remedial ed - Work Shift. Work Shift. https://workshift.opencampusmedia.org/californias-urgent-work-to-reform-remedial-ed/

https://www.apsu.edu/lrc/sla/

https://ccrc.tc.columbia.edu/research-project/accelerated-learning-program.html

https://www.carnegiemathpathways.org/solutions/statway/

https://www.utdanacenter.org/our-work/higher-education/dana-center-mathematics-pathways

https://www.tbr.edu/policy-strategy/corequisite-learning-support

https://www.acf.hhs.gov/opre/report/washington-states-integrated-basic-education-and-skills-training-i-best-program-three-0

https://accelerationproject.org

https://www.cbenetwork.org

https://mlm.pearson.com/northamerica/

https://www.aleks.com

Jimenez, S.; Morales, & Thompson. (2016, September 28). Remedial Education - Center for American Progress. Center for American Progress. https://www.americanprogress.org/article/remedial-education/

Klipple, K. (2022). Carnegie Math Pathways.  https://carnegiemathpathways.org/a-note-from-executive-director-karon-klipple-on-10-years-of-carnegie-math-pathways/

Rutschow, Elizabeth, and Emily Schneider. Unlocking the Gate What We Know About Improving Developmental Education (PDF). MDRC. Retrieved December 3, 2013.

Remedial education - Wikipedia. (2013, October 1). Remedial Education - Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Remedial_education

Richardson, S. (2022). Corequisite Mathematics Toolkit. The Charles A. Dana Center at The University of Texas at Austin https://carnegiemathpathways.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/SSTFToolkit_DanaCenter.pdf

Schmidt. (2008, July 4). 3 New Studies Question the Value of Remedial College Courses. The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/3-new-studies-question-the-value-of-remedial-college-courses/

2013 Bill Summaries - The Florida Senate. (2013). 2013 Bill Summaries - the Florida Senate. https://www.flsenate.gov/Committees/BillSummaries/2013/html/501

Vandal, Bruce. Core Principles for Transforming Remedial Education. Report of Complete College America. Year?

Request an Edit

Have something to add or refine? Your input in this work matters greatly and we look forward to reviewing your additions

Organizations (277)

Initiatives (310)

Topics (95)