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DIPLOMA TO NOWHERE: Report Pegs College Remediation Cost in Excess of $2 Billion Annually

“These students come out of high school really misled. They think they’re prepared. They got a 3.0 and got through the curriculum they needed to get admitted, but they find what they learned wasn't adequate.”

In 2004, more than 40 percent of all students in two-year public institutions and nearly 30 percent of students at public four-year institutions had to take a remedial course in college, according to Diploma to Nowhere, a new report from Strong American Schools. The report finds that more than one million students every year have to take remedial courses in college at a total cost to the nation of more than $2 billion.

“That is a very large cost, but there is an additional cost and that’s the cost to the students,” said former Colorado governor Roy Romer, chairman of Strong American Schools. “These students come out of high school really misled. They think they’re prepared. They got a 3.0 and got through the curriculum they needed to get admitted, but they find what they learned wasn’t adequate.”

Indeed, the report finds that nearly four out of five college students who enrolled in remedial courses had a high school grade point average of 3.0 or higher. Additionally, 95 percent said that they did “all or most” of the work that was asked of them in high school while nearly 80 percent thought that they were ready for college when they graduated from high school.

However, results from college admissions exams and other standardized tests support a different story. The report cites results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), noting that barely one quarter of high school seniors are proficient in math, almost half are not proficient in science, and more than one quarter lack even basic reading skills. Additionally, the report notes that only 43 percent of the high school juniors and seniors who took the ACT college entrance exam in 2007 met the mathematics benchmark of college readiness.

Given these dismal results, it is perhaps no surprise that nearly one in three of all college students (more than 1.3 million) must enroll in a remedial course after high school graduation. The report notes that this is a conservative number and does not include students attending private colleges and universities, nor does it account for students in regular-credit college courses that involve subject matter than should have been learned in high school.

Strong American Schools estimates the cost of remediation per student to be between $1,607 and $2,008 for public two-year institutions and between $2,025 and $2,531 for public four-year institutions. Using these estimates, it calculated an estimated $2.31 to $2.89 billion in total education costs, which includes tuition and fees and subsides from state budgets and other sources. The estimate did not include lost tax revenue from poorly prepared students and costs for students in private colleges and universities.

In addition to their financial toll, remedial courses also decrease the likelihood that a student will ultimately graduate from college. According to the report, 57 percent of students from the high school class of 1992 who enrolled in college and took no remedial courses earned a bachelor’s degree within eight years. Of students who took one or two remedial courses, only 29 percent earned their degree.

The report offers several recommendations to ensure that more students are prepared for college. First, it encourages states, schools, and colleges to collect more data on remediation and particularly focus on the percentage of students who receive college remediation and the percentage of students who are prepared for university-level work. It also recommends that states improve high school standards and instruction and boost accountability, which includes a “smoother, more interconnected K–16 system” that shares common goals and definitions of success.  Finally, it calls for university educators to do a better job with remediation, including more support for low-performing students.

“When American public schools do not ensure students receive a quality education, they fail in their mission and in their obligation to taxpayers,” Romer said. “Our country cannot afford a high school diploma that does not show real student achievement.”

The complete report is available at

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