Paying twice for education: We’re spending a lot of money to help college students catch

Published in The News Tribune October 10, 2010

Imagine, if you can, using taxpayer money to build an expensive stadium, then before it is paid off you implode it so that you can build an even more luxurious stadium, again with taxpayer money.

OK, too much of a stretch?  How about this:  We spend millions of taxpayer dollars to build a highway that doesn’t quite meet in the middle.

Sometimes in the public sector is seems like the adage “Measure twice, cut once” should be “Pay twice, get once.”

And this is what happens on a daily basis in education.  We call it remedial education.  And it is significantly more expensive than a second stadium or a redone highway.

Remedial education is what it’s called when students must take pre-college level courses because they arrive at college without the skills and knowledge expected of them.  And this is much too common of a phenomenon.

How common?  Based on one well-regarded organization’s estimates, nationwide among college-going high school graduates, fewer than one in four arrive at college with the reading, writing, math and science skills expected of them.  

But maybe this is because at college we expect a lot of our incoming students?  Nope.  In Washington, we typically expect students to have the math skills you should know after one or two years of algebra – something within the reach of nearly all high school students.

Standards within reach, maybe, but not grasped.  And so, about one of every two graduates of Washington high schools enrolling in community and technical colleges takes at least one remedial class.  At four year colleges, it’s probably about one out of every four.  Since some colleges don’t require remedial classes, these numbers underestimate the degree to which high school graduates in our state arrive at college underprepared.

So yes, in education, it is much too common to pay twice to educate once.  And the situation isn’t getting better:  Last year 12 percent more students enrolled in remedial classes than did two years earlier.


The growing need for remedial classes, which soak up higher ed dollars, is of course not unique to Washington.  One estimate is that it costs the nation about $4 billion/year.  So don’t expect this trend to reverse itself without actions by politicians and education leaders.


Obviously, the most important change is to improve K-12 education.  In the meantime, more transparency in who takes remedial classes and why can go a long way.  Many states are taking actions that do exactly that, and we’d be smart to copy them.   As a start, here are four suggestions:


a)      Standardize policies surrounding remedial classes across the state’s higher education institutions. 


That recent high school graduates are almost twice as likely to enroll in a remedial class at Tacoma Community College as they are at Pierce Community College probably says more about differences in policies regarding who must take remedial classes at the two institutions, than to the preparation of their incoming students.


b)      Provide better information to students and their parents on students’ likely need to take remedial classes in college


Students are often surprised by how unprepared they are for college.  The state should report by high school the percent of its graduates needing remedial classes.  In addition, it should report the relationship between high school classes taken and the need for remedial classes.  Provided to students, parents and school advisors, such information will help convince students that hard work in high school pays off.  It will also help bring about the institutional changes needed for the different parts of our K-16 educational system to work more closely together than they currently do.


c)       Evaluate the effectiveness of remedial classes. 


If taxpayers are paying a second time to educate students, we should make sure it works.  Some research casts doubt on the effectiveness of remedial classes for assuring students’ eventual success in college.  Some studies find that only 10-20 percent of students taking remedial classes actually complete their degree.  As one researcher puts it, “The hard truth is that success in college is strongly related to high school academic preparation.”


d)     Report the taxpayers’ cost of remedial education. 


Washington currently doesn’t report the amount spent on remedial education at its public institutions.  A good estimate is that it is in the $50-$70 million/year ballpark – or about three times the funding UWT receives from the state.  And unlike (let’s hope!) one-time events like rebuilding a mismeasured road, we pay to educate students twice year after year.
With better information and greater transparency, we can improve on this “pay twice, get once” practice in education. 


And there is reason for optimism.  After all, in only five years we’ll have completely finished paying off the Kingdome.