Who Takes Remedial Courses? Examining the Demographics

Blog Post
Stressed black college student looking at a laptop.
Oct. 31, 2023

The college journey is often seen as a turning point in a person’s life—a time to explore new academic and career pathways. However, for over one in four undergraduate students, this journey takes an unexpected turn as they find themselves directed into review courses, otherwise known as developmental or remedial courses. These classes aim to bridge the gap between what students know and what they’re expected to know for college-level coursework by revisiting core subjects such as reading and math. Yet, research consistently shows that remedial courses are often ineffective due to inaccurate placement or high course failure, all while many students in these courses deplete federal financial aid on completing them. In fact, many of these students do not complete their degrees.

Recognizing the limitations of traditional developmental education models, states and colleges have embarked on various reform efforts. These initiatives include providing additional support to students in remedial courses, such as offering orientation courses and increasing advising services. Nonetheless, this approach has failed to address the fundamental issues with developmental education. A prevalent strategy now involves overhauling developmental education policies and practices. This transformation includes establishing corequisite courses, which allow students to enroll directly in college-level classes while simultaneously receiving academic support. This approach has shown promise, particularly within the CUNY system.

The issue of remedial education holds significant relevance at this moment, especially given that students currently entering college are more likely to have experienced substantial academic setbacks due to disrupted schooling during the COVID-19 pandemic. As states and institutions consider alternative models, analyzing the trends revealed by the recently released National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS) 2020 Undergraduate data provides an updated look at which students are still placed into developmental courses.

Who Enrolls in Developmental Education Courses?

According to NPSAS:20, 40 percent of students attending a public 2-year college and one in four students from public 4-year colleges took a remedial course at some point in their postsecondary career. Notably, a much higher percentage of community college students took a developmental education course at some point than peers in other sectors of higher education, which underscores the diverse student demographics community colleges cater to. This trend aligns with the fact that community colleges typically serve a broad range of students, including those who are first-generation, come from low-income backgrounds, or are older learners, who may require additional academic preparation before tackling college-level coursework. These groups of students, as shown in the following figures, were more likely to have taken at least one developmental education course at some point in college than their peers.

The high enrollment rate is concerning, particularly when around 3 in 4 community college students who have ever taken a remedial course applied for financial aid to cover the costs of these courses, with roughly 45 percent receiving a Pell Grant. It is crucial to note that federal financial aid programs impose constraints on students, allowing them to count only 30 credits of remedial courses toward their enrollment status and their cost of attendance. These 30 credits represent 1/6 of their total eligibility, which is a substantial portion to allocate to remedial classes. So, spending grant money on remedial courses can potentially result in students depleting their federal aid resources before completing their degree programs. The pass rates for traditional remedial courses are alarmingly low, with less than half of community college students successfully passing all of them. Even among four-year college students enrolled in remedial courses, the pass rate is only 59 percent.

Although developmental education courses are less common now overall, students of color and low-income students continue to be disproportionately placed into these courses at both types of institutions. Systemic racism and policies, such as underfunding and tracking in low-income and predominately minoritized schools, contribute to the unfortunate reality where these students, through no fault of their own, often enter college less prepared than their white peers. Approximately half of Black and Latinx students attending public 2-year colleges, and 30 percent at 4-year institutions had ever enrolled in a remedial course. While intended to prepare students for college, these courses can impede student progress if not structured well, making college-level classes less accessible for a significant number of Black and Latinx students.

Additionally, it is crucial to recognize that students from low-income backgrounds are also overrepresented among students placed in developmental courses. Students in the lowest income quartile are 11 percentage points more likely to have enrolled in a remedial course than those in the highest quartile. A similar pattern emerges when examining first-generation students, with 33 percent having taken a remedial course compared to 21 percent of their peers.

Finally, there are also clear patterns by age in developmental course enrollment. Across all institutions, older students exhibit higher enrollment rates. However, these rates vary between community colleges and four-year institutions. In community colleges, 37 percent of students aged 15-23, 42 percent of those aged 24-29, and 44 percent of those aged 30 and older had ever enrolled in a developmental course, in contrast to 20 percent, 35 percent, and 39 percent for students of the same age groups at four-year institutions.

Impacts of Developmental Education

Developmental courses are intended to bolster success by better preparing students to succeed in college-level courses. However, according to existing research, many of these students drop out without earning a degree. Given the academic setbacks induced by the pandemic, students coming straight from high school may find themselves ill-prepared for success in college-level coursework. Older students returning to college after years in the workforce may be rusty. As universities and colleges look for ways to support students not quite ready to step directly into college-level courses, NPSAS:20 offers an updated picture of how historically underserved communities continue to be disproportionately funneled into developmental courses. These findings shed light on the diverse demographics of students engaged in remedial education and underscore the need for continued efforts to address this disparity and to ensure that students who truly do need developmental support have well-structured opportunities to catch up and move forward toward a credential.

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