College Freshmen in Need of Remedial Education

The percentage of first-time college students from Alabama public high schools assigned to remedial courses in math and English has continued to drop overall and, in the most recent data available, dropped dramatically for those attending two-year colleges, according to data from the Alabama Commission on Higher Education (ACHE). Graduates studying in four-year colleges needing remediation increased for the first time in several years. 

The data follows Spring 2018 graduates of Alabama high schools who enrolled in Alabama public colleges in the fall after graduation. The data shows that 26% of those who enrolled in higher education were required to take a course in either remedial math or remedial English or both. That’s down from 32% five years ago.

Remedial courses are primarily offered in English and math. They are designed to bring students up to the educational level needed to succeed in a college course. Students assigned to remedial math and English cannot proceed on to college-level courses in those subjects until they have passed the remedial courses. Colleges vary in the degree to which they allow students to take courses in other subjects simultaneously with their remedial courses. Some students enter with a poor background in one of these subjects but not the other. Some may have a specific learning disability in math, for example, or just never gained the foundation needed for higher math, but excel in English and other courses.

Interactive charts are presented below. Each panel presents a different view with the capacity to drill down from the state level to the system and school level, and for schools within a system. Bear in mind that the ACHE report only captures high school graduates who enrolled in the fall after their graduation in Alabama public colleges. The remediation rates for schools that send significant numbers of students to private colleges or to out-of-state colleges will not necessarily reflect the outcomes for the entire graduating class.

A higher percentage of students take remedial math than remedial English. But the progress shown for math over the past year, down from 24% to 21% in remediation is significant, given that in the past English has shown more improvement. The percentage of students taking remedial English remained the same at 12%.

At this point, both subjects have made similar progress in reducing the percentage of students taking remedial courses. Math dropping from 26% in 2013 to 21% in 2018, and English dropping from 17% to 12%. Check it out in the charts. and use the filters to drill-down and make comparisons.

The next set of charts provide remediation rates for all systems and schools in math and English over time.

Finally, take a look at the numbers in two-year and four-year colleges.

Thirty-three percent of Alabama’s high school graduates enrolling in the state’s public two-year colleges were assigned to remediation in 2018, a significant decrease from 41% in 2017. Since 2013, that percentage has dropped from 46% to 33%.

At the same time, remediation among Alabama’s high school graduates attending four-year colleges increased to 18% in 2018, up from 14% in 2017, and 17% in 2017. This reverses a downward trend and becomes the highest percentage assigned to remediation in the state’s four-year colleges over the past six years.

Over time, approximately 75% of Alabama’s high school graduates assigned to remediation attend the state’s public two-year colleges, and 25% attend the state’s public four-year colleges. This ratio has remained steady for years, but these numbers began to shift in 2018. The ACHE data shows that for 2018, two-year colleges account for 65% of graduates taking remedial courses and four-year colleges up to 35%.

This may be an anomaly in which 2018 is a unique year for remediation patterns across these two sectors. In the future we can learn more about the degree to which this pattern holds up.

In the dashboard panels, you can explore these same data for local school systems and schools. For example, the second panel provides a comprehensive view of two and four-year college numbers for all local school systems in 2008.

This is followed by a chart showing results for individual systems over the longer period, 2013-2018. In the case below the filter is selected for Huntsville City Schools.

The fourth panel provides a view of these numbers for all schools in 2018.

The system name filter can be used to see all the schools in a single system. This is shown for the Birmingham City Schools.

Finally, you can drill down to data over time for an individual school. Use the filters to look up systems and schools of interest to you.

Explore on Your Own

The final set of charts shows the remediation rates in math and English for all systems and schools over time.

Turning the Corner: Is Remediation Good or Bad?

A downward trend in the percentage of graduates taking remedial courses is positive. This could mean Alabama is increasing college readiness among students in its public schools, and more of those students attending college are better prepared.

Still, the downward trend in remediation is happening across the nation, and in part, reflects a movement away from using remedial courses in colleges and universities.

College remediation has come under consistent attack from critics over the last couple of decades. Research findings on their effectiveness are mixed with negative and positive results for students.

Some research has found that students taking remedial courses earn more credits and are more likely to graduate than comparable students who did not address fundamental problems through remediation. More commonly, research has found the opposite. Students who could have made progress in their curriculum were held back, lose the will to continue, and their family bears the cost. Financial assistance programs rarely pay for remedial courses. The mixed findings of these studies have fueled ongoing debate, though more rigorous research is now providing a closer look at what might really be happening.

A well designed, highly rigorous study published in 2017 by researchers at Vanderbilt and Harvard found that students who are on the margin would more than likely be better off pursuing regular college courses. Those placed in remedial courses will likely earn fewer credits over time and are less likely to graduate from college. At the same time, students on the lower end of the spectrum who are taking remedial courses will likely fare better in college than comparable students who do not take remedial courses. This was especially true for students taking remedial English.1

These are students who genuinely need a basic foundation in order to make further academic progress. Past research has documented evidence of students enrolling in four-year universities who cannot compose a complete sentence. It does raise questions about the appropriate educational route for students who lack important basic skills, but who would like to attend college. Where would these students best be served?

In response to criticism of remedial education, colleges have moved toward a broader and more complex set of resources for helping students. In this environment, remedial courses are on the lower end of a continuum of resources and strategies designed to support students experiencing challenges. The downward trend in remediation is likely in part due to remediation increasingly not being seen as the preferred alternative for students on the margin of needing assistance. The wider support now found in colleges include:

  • Comprehensive learning centers, writing centers, and math centers with mentors and tutors
  • Student learning communities
  • Peer tutoring and mentoring
  • First-year freshman seminar
  • Summer bridge program before the fall college term
  • Paired courses where students apply basic skills in one course to the content learned in another
  • Support in time management, organizational skills, resilience, and self-regulation

Unfortunately, programs vary in their effectiveness. Fewer students in remedial courses do not necessarily mean colleges are achieving higher graduation rates. But some programs are proving effective. Learning communities where students share and learn together have experienced strong success in many cases.

Still, the best medicine is a strong foundation during the pre-school through high school years, combined with strong family support.

  1. “Does Remediation Work for All Students?  How the Effects of Postsecondary Remedial and Developmental Courses Vary by Level of Academic Preparation.” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, Vol. 40, No.1, pp29-58. Angela Boatman, Vanderbilt University, and Bridget Terry Long, Harvard Graduate School of Education National Bureau of Economic Research