Addressing the Academic Barriers to Higher Education

A postsecondary education confers numerous benefits both to the individual and to society, including higher earnings, lower rates of unemployment and government dependency, an increased tax base, and greater civic engagement. Access to higher education remains a challenge for many families, however. In 2010, approximately 82 percent of students from high-income families attended college in comparison to only 52 percent of students from low-income families (National Bureau of Economic Research n.d.) There are also large differences in rates of college completion by income: among students who met a minimum standard of being academically qualified for college, 89 percent of high-income students completed a bachelor’s degree within eight years, whereas only 59 percent of low-income students did so (Adelman 2006). 

There are many barriers to college access and success. One major barrier is affordability, as college prices and student debt levels have risen to alarming heights. For many students, however, academic preparation may be an equally formidable barrier to postsecondary education. This is not due to college selectivity—about 80 percent of four-year colleges and nearly all two-year colleges have little to no admissions requirements. Instead, students are required to pass academic placement tests and demonstrate sufficient readiness for postsecondary study. Those who do not pass are placed into remedial or developmental courses.

Estimates suggest that more than one-third of all first-year students take some form of remedial course work in either English or mathematics, but this figure can be as high as 60 or 70 percent of students at some institutions (Bettinger, Boatman, and Long 2013; Complete College America 2012; National Center for Education Statistics [NCES] 2003). Students placed into remedial or developmental programs are most often held back from taking college-level courses, and as a result, remediation has effectively become the gateway (or barricade) to postsecondary-level training. 

While the aim of remedial and developmental courses is to provide academically underprepared students with the skills they need to succeed in college and in the labor market, being placed into the courses also has important implications for a student’s higher-education prospects. Students are forced to pay college-level prices for high school–level courses; there are also large government subsidies at stake given federal funding and state appropriations that subsidize college costs and operating budgets. Time spent in remediation can also delay completion of a postsecondary degree. Credits earned from remedial courses often do not count toward a student’s degree. Thus, it takes students longer to complete their studies, and this increases the chances that a disruption will derail them from progressing. The extended time needed to obtain a degree could also affect a student’s financial aid, as a student’s eligibility for aid may expire; students who need to complete significant remediation could run out of financial support before being able to finish. 

Unfortunately, research suggests that remediation programs do not do a good job of improving students’ outcomes. When comparing similar students in and out of remediation, some researchers have found small positive effects, but most of the research suggests no long-term effects—or even negative effects—from being placed into a remedial or developmental course (Bettinger and Long 2009; Boatman and Long 2010; Calcagno and Long 2008; Martorell and McFarlin 2011). While there are still unanswered questions about how the effects differ by type of student, most researchers, practitioners, and policymakers have concluded that the current remedies we have to address the fact that so many students are academically underprepared for college are not sufficient, and may in fact involve serious costs for students, institutions, and taxpayers.

There is ongoing debate about the best way to address students’ academic needs. Many states are confronting questions about who should deliver remediation and how it should be offered. Some are considering ways to limit the courses, shift their locations, or pass on the costs of the courses to students or school districts. While states lament the need for remediation and debate how to manage it, however, most of the current policy efforts do not focus on how to improve programs or help students avoid remediation altogether. 

This policy memo offers three key recommendations for better addressing the academic preparation problem with the hope of improving rates of college success. The recommendations focus on actions that could be taken by states, university systems, and school districts. The federal government could also play an important role by creating incentives for states and institutions to address these issues or by supporting a central organization with the purpose of providing guidance on best practices to states and institutions. This proposal’s recommendations are as follows:

  1. Improve placement in college remediation classes. Improving how students’ academic preparation levels are assessed is the first step in better tailoring supports for their needs. Better assessment is also necessary to reduce the number of students who are incorrectly placed into remediation due an opaque process or bad testing day.
  2. Provide better college remediation services. By using technology, support services, and innovative pedagogies, remediation programs could do a much better and faster job in helping to prepare students for future success with college level material. Several states are already experimenting with promising practices, including combining basic skill attainment with college-level coursework, and using learning technology to better target students’ needs.
  3. Adopt measures to prevent the need for remediation. Several states are encouraging students to take college readiness assessments in high school so that they can use this early information to make better course selections and avoid remediation altogether. Working to better align curricula and strengthen links between K–12 and higher education could also improve the likelihood that students are academically prepared for college.