In 2013, the Florida state legislature decided it wanted to “help students save money and stay in school.” It passed a law denying public colleges the right to require unprepared high school students to take remedial courses before enrolling in regular and gateway courses. This law was based on an assumption that students were “wasting” their time and money on remedial courses (that don’t count toward degrees) instead of moving directly into courses that do count toward their degrees.

Students who spend too much time in remediation, the argument went, are more likely to become discouraged and drop out—thereby burning through their financial aid with nothing to show for it. These remedial (non-credit bearing) courses, it was further assumed, increased the “time to degree” and therefore the total cost of one’s college education.

The debate over this proposal pitted politicians against educators who argued that unprepared (or under-prepared) students would be more likely to fail than those who had made up their deficiencies. Politics won. An article by Ashley A. Smith in Inside Higher Education (June 25, 2015) shows how that worked out.

At Miami-Date College, Smith reports, enrollments in developmental math decreased by around 42% even as enrollments in intermediate algebra increased from 16,000 to 20,000 students. Given the opportunity, many students avoided the remedial route their academic advisors had urged them to take. Instead, they enrolled directly in regular or gateway courses. The pass rate dropped from 55.7%, to 46.8%.

Meanwhile at St. Petersburg College, only two of every 10 students who were advised to take development math but enrolled in regular college math courses anyway, passed with a “C” or better. In both developmental reading and writing, only five out of every 10 succeeded. The success rate (originally 55.3%) dropped to 51.9% for students who failed to enroll in two recommended, development courses. That number dropped further to 45% for those who had been advised to take three development courses—and didn’t.

Instead of helping under-prepared students succeed, this policy increased the likelihood that they would fail because they had enrolled in courses for which they lacked the foundational knowledge and skills. In addition, every professor knows that having numbers of unprepared students in class—those unable to keep up with everybody else—reduces the progress that prepared students can make. Everyone lost in the process.

The assumption made by Florida’s legislators—that unprepared students could succeed in regular classes without the benefit of remedial work—was wrong. What we don’t know yet is how this failure will affect students for the long-term. Unfortunately, some of our elected officials seem to be more focused on pandering to their political bases than making informed, data-driven decisions about learning.

Making remedial courses optional not only reduced the probability that unprepared students would succeed in college, it reflected the triumph of politics over pedagogy.

Comments are closed.