In our latest policy brief, summarized below, we examine options for reducing college remediation rates, including a public school district’s offering of an Academic Guarantee.
Last October, the Arkansas Department of Higher Education released Closing the Gap 2020, the state’s plan to increase the percentage of Arkansans earning a post-secondary credential or degree by 50% over the number earned in the 2013-14 academic year. Part of this plan includes reducing the percentage of students taking remedial courses at the college level.
Since 1988, Arkansas has required placement tests for all college-bound students in math, English, and reading. The most common placement test in Arkansas is the ACT. Students taking the ACT can score anywhere between 0 and 36. The national average ACT score in 2015 was a 21 and the average for Arkansas was a 20. Arkansas students must score a 19 to avoid remedial coursework.
College Remediation Needed
For the 2014-15 academic year, over 22,000 students enrolled for the first time at one of Arkansas’s post-secondary institutions. Just over 40% of these students were assigned to at least one remedial course (compared with 33% nationally). Remedial courses are often high school-level courses, yet the cost for students is the same as a typical college-level course.
Remediation not only hits students in their wallets, but also hinders their achievement and attainment. The ADHE states in Closing the Gap 2020, “Students requiring remediation pay more in tuition and are less likely to complete a credential…typically only 25-30% [of remediated students] successfully enroll in and pass the college-level course required upon completion of remediation.” With this in mind, it comes as no surprise Arkansas would like to reduce college remediation. However, decreasing the number of students who qualify for remediation is not just a post-secondary issue. It will take a devoted effort at the K12 and post-secondary levels.
An Academic Guarantee
There are a variety of policies Arkansas’s schools could implement, but Rogers Public Schools has implemented an “Academic Guarantee” since 2004. Rogers’ policy guarantees all of its graduates are academically prepared for college-level coursework. If a graduate is required to enroll in remedial courses after being admitted to college, the district will reimburse the full cost of tuition for said courses, pending students meet a list of requirements. No students have taken advantage of the policy yet.
According to the ADHE’s remediation report, Rogers Schools graduated 1,048 students in the class of 2014, with 457 enrolling in college in Arkansas, and 178 students enrolling in at least one remedial course. Using the average cost of tuition at the state’s 2- and 4-year institutions, we calculated the range of the potential cost of reimbursement to Rogers Schools, finding the district would have paid between $42,389 if all remediated students attended 2-year institutions and $88,645 if all attended 4-year institutions. In the brief, we also include the hypothetical cost of remediation reimbursement for 16 other districts in the state along with a projection of potential costs over the next five years. We show that a policy like Rogers’ implemented in other districts could come at a pretty high cost and these costs would vary quite a bit across the state. Because of this, it seems like a difficult policy to implement statewide.
However, would we even a want a statewide “Academic Guarantee”? Recognizing the potential costs could lead districts to council potentially remediated students away from post-secondary education or to less expensive schools. Also, with Arkansas’s new policy of paying for all juniors to take the ACT, schools could start encouraging students to attempt the ACT multiple times to avoid remediation by improving their scores above the remedial cutoff. Research from the ACT suggests students who take the test multiple times are likely to see higher scores, which is improved test-taking skills rather than academic preparation.
Need Multiple Measures
Districts could try to find ways to avoid paying for remedial courses if a statewide academic guarantee were to be implemented, but the real issue lies at the heart of the remediation policy itself. Currently, test performance is the only tool used to determine course placement and potential future success. This is a decision the ACT itself does not support, instead suggesting a multi-dimensional approach that goes beyond test scores. Research from Columbia University’s Community College Research Center, shows that using multiple measures such as high school GPA alongside standardized test scores could reduce incorrectly placing students in remedial courses by 15 percent.
Arkansas has too many students entering college unprepared for the rigors of college-level coursework, but some of them may be incorrectly placed into remedial coursework. This forces students who could be successful in college to clear unnecessary hurdles and decreases their chances of earning a college degree. Simply using a more holistic evaluation of students’ skills could help Arkansas reach its post-secondary achievement goals. We could ask other districts to emulate Rogers, but we should start by revisiting the college course placement policy.