Cash-strapped universities look at cutting remedial classes

Remedial courses that prepare students for college-level work are in danger as states and schools look for cheaper alternatives.

As finals approached, nearly 240 students in a computer lab worked through basic algebra problems at Ohio’s Kent State University, where they and more than 3,200 of their classmates had been deemed unprepared for college-level math. They struggled to solve for x in equations such as 3x + 1 = 7, a skill students are meant to master in middle school.

Just down the hallway, university officials were trying to crunch a few numbers of their own, analyzing how much it’d cost to keep providing such remedial education to students who don’t arrive ready for college-level work.

The annual price tag for remedial education in American colleges and universities is at least $3.6 billion, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education, a national advocacy organization in Washington, D.C. It’s also a reason that many college students quit in frustration, contributing to high dropout rates.

In a largely overlooked but precedent-setting move, cash-strapped Ohio has said it’ll soon stop footing the bill for remedial courses. The state’s 2007 budget quietly mandated that the government phase out money for remediation at four-year universities beginning in the 2014-15 academic year, and eliminate such funding altogether by 2020.

The gap between the skills with which students graduate from high school and what colleges expect them to be able to do has come under increased scrutiny, as federal policy makers push states to increase college graduation rates. At least 13 other states, including Florida, Missouri, and South Carolina, have tried to slow the spiral of spending on remedial education, typically by restricting funding to colleges and universities that provide a lot of it.

Changing the systems, however, won’t be easy.