Thursday, June 14, 2012

Remedial Classes in the News

Remedial Classes in the News; Possible End-Games

The AP article from this week, "Experts: Remedial college classes need fixing" is worth reading. The statistics are consistent with what I've seen lots of other places (including my own university's research publications). Let me focus on one line:
Legislation passed earlier this month in Kansas prohibits four-year universities from using state funds to provide remedial courses.
Probably the most heart-breaking part of teaching remedial college math are the very many students who tell me that they've completed every course they need for a degree, except for one remedial (non-credit) algebra course, which they may take and re-take without success. (You might ask, "Isn't passing remedial math required before taking, say, a science course?" -- the answer is yes, but someone is incented to keep giving waivers in that regard). How to avoid this trap?

In the past, I thought it was a financial-aid issue; funding is given (as I understand it) as long as a full-time course load is taken, which means students are required to take credit-bearing courses at the same time as they attempt remediation. Supposedly NY will soon start enforcing a rule to not pay if remediation is not completed after the first year.

But either way you go on that issue, students wind up committed (sunk cost) to a program that appears "mostly done" except for the math requirement. And they'll wind up in the same cycle of re-taking remedial math, now at their own out-of-pocket expense, with that being close to the last class they have to take. Even if you go the Kansas route and don't pay for remediation, you can pay for everything else first and wind up in the same sunk-cost situation (students paying for repeated remediation near the end -- exacerbating debt which is the other whipping-boy of the linked article).

I'd like to suggest that clear, up-front communications (perhaps mandatory reporting requirements) on passing and graduation rates would do the trick. But then you've got the Dunning-Kruger Effect (the weakest students overestimate their abilities/chances), and frankly the very weakest, in remedial arithmetic, are there precisely because they don't understand percentages (et. al.) enough to parse information like that.

So it seems like only two ultimate solutions remain: (a) Bar students with certain deficiency levels from college -- i.e., end "open admissions", or (b) Void these requirements and allow people to get associate's degrees without ever mastering basic algebra (at least). My guess is that in some form or other, the latter is nigh-inevitable.


  1. My bet? The latter will be accomplished, with basic algebra being replaced by touchy-feely "math appreciation" type classes.