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HIGHER EDUCATION, HIGHER REMEDIATION: Nearly Half of Students in College Remedial Courses Come from Middle- and Upper-Income Families, According to New Report

More than a half million rising college freshmen enrolled in remedial courses during their first year of college in 2011, collectively spending $1.5 billion in direct college expenses for educational content they should have learned in high school. Furthermore, remedial education impacts students at all income levels and affects students at public and private two-year and four-year colleges.

Those findings come from Out of Pocket: The High Cost of Inadequate High Schools and High School Student Achievement on College Affordability, a new report from Education Reform Now (ERN), a progressive nonprofit think tank and advocacy organization. Using data from the U.S. Department of Education, researchers identified trends in first-year remedial course enrollment among students who started college in 2011, the most recent year available. Then they estimated the costs associated with taking remedial classes, which typically review basic skills and do not count toward the credits students need to complete a college degree.

“We have long studied how our country’s elementary and secondary schools have underserved low-income students and students of color, but inadequate academic preparation does not end with students and schools from low-income communities,” says Mary Nguyen Barry, senior policy analyst at ERN and coauthor of the report, in a statement.

“Contrary to common belief, remedial education is not a phenomenon confined to low-income students or community colleges,” the report notes. “It affects students from a broad range of incomes, including those from middle-class, upper-middle-class, and high-income families, and from a broad range of college sectors.”

As shown in the image from the report below, 45 percent of students in first-year remedial college classes came from middle-, upper-middle-, and high-income families, those that earned between $48,000 and $113,440 per year or more. Roughly 55 percent came from families earning $48,000 a year or less.

Students Enrolled in Remedial Coursework

Similarly, 43 percent of students in remedial classes attended public four-year colleges and private nonprofit and for-profit two- and four-year colleges, while 57 percent attended public two-year colleges.

In some cases, students from high-income families took more remedial classes than did students from low-income families. Across all postsecondary institutions and income levels, students averaged two remedial courses each during their first year of college, the report says. But at private nonprofit four-year colleges, students from the highest income quintile took one class more than students from the lowest income quintile (2.7 versus 1.6 remedial classes). “In other words, in the most expensive colleges and universities, the wealthiest students need more remedial education than the poorest ones,” the report says.

The costs associated with those extra noncredit classes accumulate quickly, especially at expensive private colleges. The average net price[1] for one remedial class was $1,500 in 2011, the report says. Of that total, students financed, on average, $380 per course with federal and private student loans, amounting to more than $380 million in additional student loan debt nationally just for remedial course work, according to the ERN report.

Students from high-income families who attended private nonprofit four-year colleges spent the most on remedial courses, averaging more than $12,000 to study content they should have learned in high school. Net tuition and fees for classes at private four-year colleges are three times higher than those at public four-year colleges and more than ten times higher than those at community colleges. Meanwhile, the net cost, which is the all-inclusive cost of attending a college, of attending a private four-year college is twice the cost of attending a public four-year college and three times the cost of attending a community college, the report says.

Students who take remedial classes also face “indirect opportunity costs,” including a higher likelihood of lost earnings, the ERN report says. Among full-time students seeking a bachelor’s degree, those who took a remedial course during their first year were 74 percent more likely to drop out of college, significantly reducing their earning potential. Meanwhile, students who took remedial courses but stayed in college took eleven months longer to earn their bachelor’s degree, time they were not working and earning as much as they could have with a degree, the report says. Among full-time students seeking an associate’s degree, those who took a remedial course were 12 percent more likely to drop out of college, while those who persisted took an extra six months to complete their degree. An analysis by the Alliance for Excellent Education finds that college remediation costs students an estimated $2 billion in lost lifetime wages.

“By shifting the expenses of a public K–12 education system into the more privatized higher education market, students and families are left to assume an unnecessary financial burden that can have damaging consequences—including long-term opportunity costs,” the ERN reports says. “[T]he college affordability issue—a ‘crisis’ some call it—is linked to the fate of high school reform and student achievement. Upgrade standards and learning for all students now or pay more out of pocket for college later.”

Out of Pocket: The High Cost of Inadequate High Schools and High School Student Achievement on College Affordability is available at


[1] The net price reflects the total cost of attending college after deducting grant and scholarship aid and includes costs for tuition, fees, room, board, textbooks, and other personal expenses. The average out-of-pocket cost for one remedial course based on average net tuition and fees alone is about $400, notes the ERN report.


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