TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: Are college students wasting time and money re-learning high school coursework?

When students arrive on campus underprepared for the rigors of college coursework, everybody pays. Colleges must invest in offering “developmental” classes in math and English, and students end up paying full-freight tuition for courses that generally do not count toward the credit-hours needed for a degree.

The cost of remedial education — and whether it’s being over-used — is a topic of intense focus in the education press and in the school reform field. A recently published study shows that a rising percentage of Colorado high school graduates — as many as 60 percent in some municipalities — require remediation when they enter college.

While such statistics suggest colleges are overrun with academic stragglers, there is in fact some indication that developmental courses are being over-prescribed because of unreliable placement tests, and that a substantial share of those enrolled in remedial coursework don’t need to be there.

Student journalists should take advantage of the many publicly available databases and reports to localize this phenomenon on their own campuses.

The expense of remedial coursework — paying college tuition prices for what should’ve been taught in high school at no cost — is part of the larger story about soaring college costs and student loan debt, and it’s part of the reason so many students need more than the traditional four years to earn a degree. A request for public records reflecting how many students are taking how many credit-hours of developmental courses, and at what cost, can quantify the impact.

A Rhode Island television station used public records to report that students at the Community College of Rhode Island are spending $5.4 million a year taking remedial classes. The Rochester Democrat-Gazette recently obtained public records covering the entire State University of New York system showing that, statewide, students take out some $39 million a year in loans to cover the cost of remedial classes.

State departments of education often compile and publish statistics showing trends in remedial enrollment, as does the U.S. Department of Education through its IPEDS (Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System) program.

Remedial education also is under scrutiny by the regional accrediting agencies that validate the value of colleges’ degree program. Both public and private colleges must publicly disclose both the “self-study” reports they prepare for their accreditors and the evaluation reports prepared by visiting accreditation teams. Remediation statistics and trends routinely are part of that examination.

States increasingly are tracking how students fare (and how many — or few — end up graduating) after they complete a regimen of remediation, and that data is a matter of public record. If records show that students taking developmental courses graduate at consistently lower rates than the overall student body, it’s legitimate to ask whether (a) the remedial courses are doing the job of getting people fully caught up or (b) the college is admitting people it knows to be poor candidates for completion.

And although individual student grades are of course confidential, aggregate totals on how many students flunk remedial classes ought to be available on request from any public college or university.