Remedial Education is expensive. It’s hard to diagnose the problem. It’s hard to teach students who aren’t ready for college. About a third of first-year students in 2007-08 took at least one remedial course, but what that actually means is sort of unclear.

Many people bemoan the ubiquity of remedial courses in college, but it turns out it’s a problem that’s pretty hard to fix. According to a recent report by the Community College Research Center:

. . . there is currently no assessment method that can definitively determine whether students are ready for college-level classes. As a result, even if states or systems set a central policy, individual colleges tend to perceive it as ineffective and push back against it. Consequently, the assessment test cut-off scores used by central offices and colleges are often inconsistent, and none effectively predict success.

.. . . a significant number of students are misplaced: some assigned to college-level courses need remediation, and many placed in remediation don’t need it to pass college classes.

That’s because, while remediation is often a symbol for students being unprepared for college, in fact remediation isn’t a real thing. It’s just a label various different colleges give to classes for which students don’t earn real credit. There’s no common definition for what constitutes being “unprepared” for college and no one real knows which remedial courses actually help students get ready for college.

There’s not necessarily any reason to come up with a common definition for what remediation is (they offer remedial courses at virtually all American institutions of higher learning; “prepared to earn college credit” doesn’t mean the same thing at the University of Missouri as it means at the University of new Hampshire), but it’s very troublesome to try and fix such an ambiguous problem.

But the situation isn’t sure going to improve as long as we keep operating remediation the way we do now.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer