Affluent Children Poorly Prepared for College

The New York Times reported, (5/10/2016) on a report from Education Reform Now, a nonprofit think tank, which analyzed cost and course data collected by the Education Department for students who entered college in 2011. More than a half-million poorly prepared students — or about one in four — were required to take remedial courses in math, English or writing. Forty-five percent of them came from middle-, upper-middle- and high-income families. Fifty-seven percent of the students needing remedial classes attended public community colleges. The rest went to other schools, including private four-year nonprofit colleges and universities.

The costs to families are considerable. For example, remedial students at private, nonprofit four-year schools spent an average of $12,000 extra to study content that should have been learned in high school. The total cost for all students and their families for remediation was nearly $1.5 billion for the 2011-12 school year.

The cost should be measured not just in dollars, but also in unmet goals. Among full-time students seeking a bachelor’s degree, those who take remedial courses are 74 percent more likely to drop out of college than non-remedial students.

The results are surprising in that schools in privileged communities are failing to prepare significant numbers of students and that nearly half of the students who begin their college careers taking remedial courses come from middle- and upper-income families. Not only do remedial courses add more than $1 billion each year to students’ bills for tuition, but also students who start out in these classes take longer to graduate and are far more likely to drop out.

The study challenges commonly held preconceptions about who needs extra help in college. At private, nonprofit four-year schools, for example, students whose families were in the top 20 percent of income nationally actually took more remedial courses than students in the bottom 20 percent at the same colleges. Part of the problem is that high schools offer a rigorous curriculum for relatively few students and often use a grading system that masks underperformance.

The problem can also be that colleges shouldn’t be accepting students who aren’t capable of doing college-level work. What better way of gauging the importance of high school than validating a high school diploma? Maybe the standards of colleges and high schools should be changed?