About one out of every three American college students take remedial courses during their academic career, courses that don’t count in terms of credits for a degree, but for which they still have to pay.

It’s dramatically worse in community colleges, and evidence indicates that taking any remedial math or English courses makes it that it less likely the student will ever earn a degree.

But some colleges, understandably, reason that college students, having finished high school, ought to be prepared to take real courses upon admission. And so in a few states four-year public colleges stopped offering remedial courses at all. If students weren’t prepared to succeed in college, they should take remediation in community colleges.

It hasn’t really worked out so well, however. A few colleges have given up on this plan and decided, well, the hell with it; we’ll just do it ourselves. Students can take regular credut courses and the colleges will provide extra help, if needed. According to a piece at Community College Times:

For years, Metropolitan State University of Denver admitted unprepared students, then sent them to community college for remedial classes. Now, the university is doing some of its own remediation — while students take college-level courses, reports Chalkbeat.

Wanda Holopainen scored low on the math, reading and writing portions of the ACT. Instead of as much as three semesters of community college, she takes Metro State classes with “supplemental academic instruction” (SAI).

So now a student like Holopainen will go ahead and take real courses, she’ll just get additional help in the areas where she’s unprepared.

This illustrates something that’s long bothered me about how we talk about remediation. People, often college administrators and politicians, discuss remedial education as if it is some awful thing that should have been covered in high school and students who need remedial courses are horribly unprepared and should therefor take additional courses to “get them ready.”

But offering remediation that actually works, and gets people prepared for credit-bearing courses, is pretty hard.

Students usually appear to do a lot better when they have a specific goal, when they’re trying to learn complicated, interesting material and can access extra help when they’re confused. At Metro State, according to the article, this consists of tutoring and peer study sessions.

It turns out it works pretty well. Metro State reports that grades are higher and student are completing more courses.

Interestingly, the article reports that local community colleges initially resisted this new plan because “remediation is a huge revenue source.” Students often have to take three remedial courses before they can be admitted to credit-bearing courses. This is a pretty bad economic model, but really pretty lucrative to community colleges, even though they’re really pretty bad at remedial courses. Indeed, they don’t really have much incentive to do a good job; the longer students spend taking remediation, the more money community colleges make, even if the remedial courses are crap.

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