In late spring 2019, Linda enrolled in her freshman year at Southwest Tennessee Community College (SWTCC), a public, two-year, open-admissions college in Memphis. The school charges in-state tuition of roughly $4,500 a year, but it is free for students, such as Linda, who are eligible for full Pell Grants. The modern campus has a predominantly African American student body. And Linda, a Black returning student in her mid-50s, looked forward to the fall semester. Full of ideas for starting her own business, she had been working as a home health aide—mainly for Alzheimer’s patients, whom she joked around with and seemed to love—but now the determined student had what she called a “game plan.” “I want to work with kids and help them through problems at home the school system ignores before they get to a point where they fight their teachers and the schools put them out,” Linda told me. “I want to be the one to make a difference.”

Check out the complete 2022 Washington Monthly rankings here.

Linda tested below college level in math, English, and reading. But before entering community college, Linda learned about a free summer bridge program run by a local nonprofit, which coordinated with SWTCC and offered condensed instruction in those subjects, followed by another round of testing. If Linda passed, the program could help her avoid remedial courses that didn’t earn her credits. It also offered opportunities. She met a program coach who could help her navigate college life and even assist with a possible transfer to a four-year college once she completed her associate’s degree. At lunchtime every day, Linda and other incoming SWTCC participants gathered for a free meal provided by the program. Speakers offered advice about what to expect in college. Three weeks later, Linda passed her math placement test: “I was like, ‘Let’s get it!’ ” said the longtime Memphis resident, who has a big, deep laugh. “The summer program helped me find my footing.”

Even before the pandemic, nearly two-thirds of community college students and a majority of all American college students showed up on campuses “unprepared”—defined as requiring remediation. Only 10 percent of students who took remedial courses earned their associate’s degrees within three years.

Few students arrive at SWTCC well prepared. In fact, in Memphis, half the students who graduate from local public high schools and enter in-state public colleges require at least one remedial class. At SWTCC, about 70 percent of students are eligible for federal Pell Grants, compared with just 15 percent at Ivy League institutions. Roughly a third of SWTCC students are, like Linda, over 25 years old. Within three years of full-time classes, pursuing what is typically considered a two-year degree, only about 10 percent of students graduate, and little more than 5 percent transfer to four-year colleges. But Linda seemed determined to complete her degree. “This is my time, and I’m willing to put in the effort,” she said. “Where my head is right now is getting my bachelor’s degree, so let’s get this part over with.”

I wrote about Linda and several of her SWTCC classmates for this magazine last year. At the time, I worried about how the novel coronavirus and the concomitant shutdown of in-person instruction would affect students like her, who statistics indicated faced unlikely odds—even before the pandemic—of achieving associate’s degrees, let alone transferring to four-year colleges.

As I spent time with Linda, however, she seemed relatively unfazed by the disruption to in-person classes. In her second year at SWTCC, she posted journal entries for her social psychology class. For a theater class, she wrote a paper about the difference between a live performance of The Wizard of Oz and watching Hamilton on TV. She found a job at a nursing home that paid enough to cover her textbooks, and she considered the responsibilities a useful counterpart to her sociology major. Even after testing positive for COVID-19, Linda stayed up late to watch online lectures after her shifts and imagined herself moving to a better position at the nursing home after completing her associate’s degree. She also envisioned working with youth once she achieved her bachelor’s degree. However sleep deprived she might get, Linda told me, she would do what was necessary to succeed.

“This is where I’m supposed to be,” she said. “I’m going to school. I’m going to school. Or else SWTCC will have to put me up out of here. You can get all the certificates in the world, all the training in the world. But when you have a degree behind your name, that degree makes everything else mean more.”

Nevertheless, after many of the initial supports provided by the summer program faded away, Linda seemed unprepared to seek the help she needed to get ahead on her own. Crucially, assuming that she would graduate, she waited until the end of her fourth full-time semester to take the necessary steps to transfer to the University of Memphis, a local, public four-year school. “Right now, I have to focus. I have to grind this,” Linda said, explaining her rationale. “I’m just trying to get through.” She intended to take fewer classes at the university each semester, which she expected would make the final “two years” to the bachelor’s degree easier for her. “And with the work study stuff there, I will still be at school and able to do work, and I’ll be getting paid,” she said. 

As Linda approached the end of her second year at SWTCC, she anticipated a happy, post-graduation summer, catching up with family and friends and preparing to start at the university. Since enrolling at SWTCC, she had stopped watching television and taken a smaller apartment. 

But when she filled out an SWTCC form for students intending to graduate, Linda discovered that she had several more classes to complete to reach the 60 credits required for her degree. The remedial courses, she learned, did not count toward that number, and she also had failed a credit-bearing class while simultaneously enrolled in the remedial class supporting it.

Undeterred, Linda signed up for a third fall semester and took a new job, driving patients to their doctor’s appointments. The position came with health insurance, which Linda had never had, and a 401k retirement plan. Her shifts, however, were longer than at the nursing home and—because they demanded lifting clients on and off stretchers and wheelchairs—left her more fatigued, reducing her motivation to study into the night.

As days went by with little rest, Linda considered dropping out. More than two years of full-time work and full-time community college had caught up with her. Eventually, she decided that she had accomplished enough. She had experienced college and could get by on her work as a driver.

In December 2021, she withdrew. 

Linda’s experience is not unique. Students lack college preparation not only in Memphis but also across Tennessee and the country. In Tennessee, only 17 percent of public high school students test ready for college in English, math, reading, or science. Nationwide, even before the pandemic, nearly two-thirds of community college students and a majority of all American college students showed up on campuses “unprepared”—defined as requiring remediation. Data from 2011 showed that at community colleges, only 10 percent of students who took remedial courses earned their associate’s degrees within three years, while nearly half never completed them

Higher ed institutions face an abiding conundrum with students who begin behind. Getting them up to speed to learn at the college level is necessary but wastes the students’ time and money (remedial classes typically don’t count for credit toward a degree) and discourages them from remaining enrolled. Now, however, this unsolved question looms large over an entire generation. How should the country and its educational institutions deal with students who lost out on years of pandemic-era learning? 

Previous efforts have met with limited success. In 2015, Tennessee became the first state to shift remedial course work systemwide from a prerequisite model to a corequisite one. Accordingly, Linda took her remedial English class during the same semester that she took credit-bearing English 101, rather than separately. Studies show that corequisite remediation improves students’ completion rates of lower-level courses but fails to help more students achieve their degrees. 

States like Florida have chipped away at required remediation altogether. In 2013, Florida eliminated placement tests and made remedial classes optional. The number of students passing college-level English and math classes increased, but the changes also came with enhanced academic support services, which simultaneously helped students, and course passage rates, while ticking up slightly, remained shockingly low

Through a program called Seamless Alignment and Integrated Learning Support (SAILS), Tennessee experimented with moving remedial math earlier in a student’s education. The program used high school juniors’ ACT scores to place them into remedial math classes during their senior year of high school. Those who passed the classes would not have to retake remedial math in college. Participants became much more likely to enroll in college-level math courses; however, they passed those college-level math courses at the same rate as traditional remedial students. 

Other states tried similar measures, with mixed results. The Florida College and Career Readiness Initiative, which, at the time, required participation by some high school students in Math for College Readiness, resulted in greater enrollment in college-level classes but no proof of more success in them. With similar programs, West Virginia did not achieve progress, but Arkansas and Mississippi did, according to the Community College Research Center

Many American high schools, however, have not had the resources to offer sufficiently high-level courses to prepare students to meet college learning expectations—especially high schools with significant racial and ethnic-minority student populations. Only 57 percent of African American students have attended schools where they could graduate ready for college.

Even at high schools where such classes are available, the highest-risk students frequently avoid them. This was true well before COVID-19, when students rarely, if ever, faced online learning.

During the pandemic, Linda’s Latina classmate at SWTCC, Tracy, tried to keep her young siblings and cousins, who were home from elementary school, logged into their activities and focused throughout the virtual school day. However, she could tell that no one, including her, was learning what they were supposed to be learning. Students at all educational levels, particularly those needing the most help with college preparedness, developed more significant deficits. 

Tania’s mother, who has schizophrenia, mostly stayed in bed; her father worked long hours. In Mexico, he had left formal education after sixth grade and liked the idea of his daughter going to college. It fulfilled his vision of the American dream.

Simultaneously, those in a position to guide students into college missed out on contact even with students who were attending and participating in online high school course work. Mentors from college-access nonprofits, representatives of free community college programs, and scholarship providers lost opportunities for building relationships. School counselors had less ability to facilitate essential milestones like making college officers aware of particular students or ensuring that students turned in key documents. 

In emergency meetings at the height of the pandemic that I attended, coordinated over Zoom across Tennessee, various college-access practitioners lamented not having the minimum contact information, especially email addresses, for applicants. Before the pandemic, staff had a chance to at least talk with students when they got off morning buses on their way to class—and even then, some students struggled. Before COVID, when school was in person, skipping classes would have led to a truancy charge. In the virtual educational environment, kids could log into school, get counted as present, and then leave, without anyone monitoring whether they were actually sitting and watching the class. The practitioners expected post–high school college enrollments to drop and continue dropping for some time. 

Tania is a bubbly Latina student who reads Japanese graphic novels in her spare time. In high school, she learned what it would take to apply to and enroll in college. Initially, she assumed that this wouldn’t be something her family could handle. Neither her immigrant parents nor her older siblings had any postsecondary education. But Tania loved learning, earned high grades, and forged close relationships with teachers. She joined the National Honor Society, and volunteer tutoring through the organization sparked her interest in a helping profession, such as teaching or social work. She began asking her high school teachers and her college counselor about college admissions and scholarship money.

Her parents assumed a hands-off stance regarding her education. Tania’s mother, who has schizophrenia, mostly stayed in bed; her father worked long hours. In Mexico, he had left formal education after sixth grade and liked the idea of his daughter going to college. It fulfilled his vision of the American dream. Tania felt guilty about possibly leaving home but delighted in the possibility of a new life chapter in a dorm.

Mia waited for someone to tell her how to transfer to the University of Memphis. The email with instructions she expected from the community college never came. Her parents hadn’t attended college, so they couldn’t help her. So, she took a position at Walmart, working nights restocking shelves.

In the spring of 2020, when Tania was in her junior year of high school, education in America moved online, and she lost contact with her college counselor and her teachers’ direct support, as did many students who could no longer chat with faculty after class or struggled with Zoom. Meanwhile, her family was falling deeper into debt. “You know, furniture, rent, credit cards, the usual things you would be in debt for,” she said. “My dad is struggling financially, and it just breaks my heart.” Before long, Tania took a job making sandwiches at Subway. She told her dad, “I want to help out.”

Though she graduated from high school in 2021, she decided to remain home and continue working. She hoped that she would get to college eventually and that her initial, good high school grades might still warrant admissions and scholarships. But students who have not enrolled in college directly from high school have always had difficulty getting back on track. They become even less prepared for college-level course work and tend to become saddled with competing obligations like child care and other demands of home. 

By spring 2021, overall enrollments at community colleges clocked in nearly 10 percent lower than in the spring of 2020, more than double the losses at four-year colleges. At SWTCC, enrollment fell 18 percent. Between the spring 2020 and fall 2020 semesters, half the African American male students previously enrolled at SWTCC dropped out.

Students who graduated from community college earned 10 percent more than those who enrolled but left without achieving their associate’s degrees. Those who graduated became more likely to find full-time jobs, compounding their higher wages over time. Raising graduation rates would reduce income inequality, bringing more people out of poverty.

Community colleges have become entry points to a bachelor’s degree, a sheepskin that moves the needle on economic mobility even more significantly. Nearly half of students in higher education are enrolled in community colleges; half of all students receiving bachelor’s degrees were previously enrolled in community colleges, a proportion that has grown in recent years.

But due to poor preparation, the conduit connecting community colleges with four-year colleges has increasingly appeared blocked. Though more high school graduates have been entering higher education through community college, a smaller proportion of those students have been achieving bachelor’s degrees, as more community college students have dropped out. Two-thirds of all first-time, full-time community college students have failed to obtain their associate’s degrees within three years. African American students like Linda have suffered from shockingly low completion rates: Only a quarter of first-time, full-time African American students have earned associate’s degrees in the same period.

In Memphis, Rod, an African American high school honors student, intended to study auto maintenance at SWTCC to prepare himself for jobs working with his hands, doing something involving cars. He earned good grades in high school and befriended several of his teachers. Nevertheless, Rod graduated in 2019—before the pandemic—testing below college level in English, math, and reading. Because his single mother was raising five children on her own and needed his financial help, he worked full-time over the summer before starting community college and didn’t participate in a bridge program as Linda did. He therefore entered college even more behind. He spent his entire first semester in remedial classes that did not count for credit.

Rod is a consummate charmer, a holder of doors, and a pronouncer of “ma’am”s. He passed his remedial courses on the first try and quickly found positions at local warehouse jobs that paid about $15 an hour. By his second semester, feeling like he was wasting time in college, he downshifted from four to two classes. By the end of his second year of college, he had lost motivation to continue his education. He never recovered from his initial lack of preparation and the time his remedial classes, which offered no credit but were nevertheless required, added to his load.

During the pandemic, colleges and college students received substantial aid from the federal CARES Act (March 2020), the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (December 2020), and the American Rescue Plan Act (March 2021). Still, four-year colleges received nearly twice the aid of community colleges on a per-pupil basis. This was because the CARES Act funding formula penalized institutions educating part-time students, predominantly community colleges. The Biden administration’s subsequent American Rescue Plan removed the penalty, doubling the funding community colleges collected from the federal government. State lawmakers, for their part, have long funded community colleges at lower levels than four-year public colleges. Though allocations for community college students grew over recent years, they still received less money overall, and fewer resources for academic and student support. 

Shortly before dropping out of SWTCC, Rod received a bill for $230. He hadn’t known that when his enrollment fell below part-time status, he would have to repay a pro rata share of the Pell Grant aid he received. Moreover, by dropping out within the first two-thirds of a semester, he became ineligible for Pell support. He would have to repay another portion of the grant money.

College readiness entails not just academic skills but also help seeking, task management, interpersonal communication, problem solving, study strategies, and personal decision making. It also encompasses understanding how to register for classes, seek advice and counseling, solicit financial aid, and ask for career development assistance. Deficits in preparedness in these areas cast their shadow far across the college experience. While plenty of children growing up in middle-class families lag in these areas, they often have the advantage of parents who went to college and know how to negotiate bureaucracies. 

Last spring, Rod’s SWTCC classmates, Tracy—the Latina student who had been helping her younger siblings and cousins during the school day—and Mia—a mixed-race student who ranked fifth in her high school class—graduated with their associate’s degrees. With the help of the bridge program in which Linda participated, both tested out of remedial courses and avoided wasting college time in non-credit-bearing classes. 

Tracy intended to earn a bachelor’s degree to become an interior designer. Still, at SWTCC, she majored in general studies, thinking that more of her credits would transfer to a four-year college that way. This was not exactly true, particularly given the number of prerequisite course requirements in the interior design bachelor’s major and its onerous subject-area credit requirements. 

Underprepared community college students desperately need more and better counseling and guidance to navigate the complicated choices they face. Right now, the onus is entirely on the student to maneuver through their institution. They’re given a remedial class, but little or no help beyond that.

Tracy thought she had applied to transfer to the University of Memphis and gained admission so she could start classes the following fall, but somehow the steps she needed to take to enroll seemed murky and difficult to complete. She made an appointment to speak virtually with an adviser, but she had to miss the meeting to help with family chores. Her mother had lost her job; without citizenship, she couldn’t get a driver’s license, and the multigenerational household depended on Tracy to drive her rickety, used car to errands and appointments. Then a new company bought the house her family rented and told them they had to move out within the month. “We’ve been trying to get settled,” Tracy explained to me. “The younger kids had to change schools. Then my car wasn’t working. It’s a journey, I guess. If I’m able to help out, then I’m going to help out. And [for college] I don’t really understand what I need to do next.”

Mia was also waiting for someone to tell her how to transfer to the University of Memphis. She had started community college determined to become a therapist, but the path to the necessary degree looked more and more uncertain. Her parents hadn’t attended college, so they couldn’t help her with the transfer process. Mia seemed to expect the community college to email her a list of specific instructions, but no such email ever arrived. 

She decided, therefore, to find herself a job instead, but she appeared unsure of how to do that either, and even more uncertain of how to find work related to her new associate’s degree in psychology. Rod, meanwhile, told her the local Walmart was hiring. She took a position there, working nights restocking shelves.

In numerous areas, the pandemic deepened rifts in educational preparedness that will resound for years. It brought to the fore the necessity of a broader, more effective campaign to address college readiness and academic preparation.

The lack of college readiness for so many community college students has its origin, of course, in a K–12 system that fails students in countless ways. But short of reforming that system from root to branch, a more targeted set of improvements could make a substantial difference. 

To resolve learning deficits at the high school level, all high schools must offer curricula for training students with sufficient skills and knowledge to succeed in college. To do that, the country urgently needs a standard, national definition of college readiness. The Common Core State Standards, a 2010 educational initiative detailing what K–12 students should know in English and math at the end of every school grade, as a means for spurring high, standardized academic benchmarks, must now be integrated more closely with college course work. This would contribute to greater curricular continuity, aligning more closely what students would leave high school knowing with college learning expectations. In Washington State, for example, high school and community college teachers have jointly used the Common Core standards to identify learning goals and assemble courses. The state’s Bridge to College class in English draws from the Southern Regional Education Board’s Literacy Ready class, materials created by New York State, and California State University’s expository writing course. Nevertheless, definitions of college readiness vary by state, and not every state has adopted or implemented the Common Core standards. 

The average community college receives half or less revenue per student than the average four-year state college, and far less than elite private universities. They simply don’t have the money they need for counselors or administrative support staff to coordinate curriculum with high schools.

Following the example of a handful of successful programs, additional initiatives in the junior year of high school could further align curricula and match student progression. In Long Beach, California, the Early Assessment Program has measured college readiness among 11th graders to allow students time to improve their skills in courses jointly designed by district and postsecondary faculty. Long Beach City College has accepted the courses for placement. To adapt writing instruction to better meet college expectations, Philadelphia high schools have partnered with college writing instructors. On behalf of the New York City school system, the community-based organization LINCT to Success has had high school seniors take City University of New York placement tests and used the results in individualized learning plans. Faculty at CUNY have also developed the At Home in College program. Its English and math transition courses have made a limited difference in course passage rates in college. It is not enough for states to eliminate remedial courses. Students like Linda and Rod need to enter college prepared with the academic skills to succeed there.

At the college level, while isolated efforts have helped some students succeed in remedial courses, several clear areas for further reform persist. One successful model for accelerated and integrated reading and English composition, for example, developed at Chabot College in California by Katie Hern, has entailed a single-semester, four-hour English composition course that combines reading development with composition while also training students in critical thinking and college expectations. Participants have demonstrated a nearly 25 percent greater likelihood of completing college-level English courses. Remedial learning initiatives must integrate research and theory on culturally responsive teaching, inclusive instruction, adult learning theory, and cognitive psychology to improve student learning outcomes. Currently, most of those teaching college-level remedial courses have adjunct faculty status. Substituting full-time faculty would enable access to institutional orientations and training and more support for this critical type of teaching. Incoming students must also receive more detailed counseling on how colleges use placement test scores and how the scores impact students’ college trajectories. 

The Memphis grind: Rod dropped out of community college after passing his remedial classes, receiving no credits for them, and finding it increasingly difficult to keep up with school while working. Credit: Brandon Hill

Whether in remedial classes or not, underprepared community college students desperately need more and better counseling and guidance to navigate the complicated choices they face. That means colleges must address preparedness more broadly, beyond explicitly remedial courses, with efforts to help at-risk students continue throughout their education. Right now, the onus is entirely on the student to navigate through their institution. They’re given a remedial class, but the college offers little or no help beyond that. 

If students are to remain enrolled and graduate, they must make a series of good choices following remediation and navigate other forces threatening to undermine their progress. Linda, for example, passed several remedial courses but did not understand the credit loss entailed and therefore failed to establish a plan for recouping those credits on an acceptable schedule. 

Teaching and promoting the behaviors necessary for college and transfer success seem best conveyed through coordinated efforts by faculty and student affairs professionals. More communication among advisers and faculty can help integrate the messaging students receive. This would allow students like Tracy and Mia to parlay their associate’s degrees into further educational training and eventually better jobs.

Various colleges and nonprofits run programs contacting people with college credits and no degree, making efforts to convince them to reenroll. Investing in keeping students enrolled through graduation and potential transfer seems a more efficient way to boost the country’s overall educational attainment than trying to reenroll students who attempted college but dropped out. Only a third of students who reenrolled in college between 2005 and 2008 ultimately earned degrees, a lower completion rate than among first-time students. Loan policy has created a significant obstacle: Following a six-month grace period, payments on loans a non-enrolled student previously entered into come due, and federal unsubsidized and private student loans will have already accrued interest. Moreover, federal student loans have a maximum lifetime limit.

The types of reforms and additional services that community colleges need to add to help students like Linda and Tania succeed will require a major investment from Washington. The average community college receives half or less revenue per student than the average four-year state college, and far less than elite private universities. They simply don’t have the money for the counselors they need to hire, or the administrative support staff needed to coordinate curriculum with high schools. 

Last year’s Build Back Better reconciliation bill, which included tens of billions of dollars for community colleges and services like counseling, died in the Senate last winter. A revived version that passed this summer did not include money for higher education. Still, future investment in community college isn’t inconceivable after the midterm elections, given that vocational programs are, at least rhetorically, a Republican priority.

Tania, meanwhile, is making the best of things at the sandwich shop where she now works, her astuteness and attention to detail noticeable to her customers. She now pours the dreams she had for college into her younger sister, who Tania feels determined should enroll somewhere selective, live in a dorm, and experience everything she originally wanted for herself. When she talks about it, she smiles, and her eyes brighten. 

Though her father still wants her to go to college, even if she had to juggle work and school, Tania plans instead to apply soon for a new job at a national drugstore chain. She hopes to work her way up to the pharmacy, considering pharmacy work close to her original interests in teaching or social work. Eventually, she envisions moving to wherever her sister might attend college. Tania is building hope around the promise of economic opportunity through her sister’s education, if only she is prepared to figure out how to pursue and complete it.

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

Jodie Adams Kirshner

Jodie Adams Kirshner, a bankruptcy law scholar, is a research professor at New York University’s Marron Institute of Urban Management. Her latest book is Broke: Hardship and Resilience in a City of Broken Promises, and her forthcoming book is about access to higher education.