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How to Fix the Biggest Academic Barrier to Finishing College

More than half of community college students and a third of students at four-year colleges need remedial math. But many students never make it through remedial classes. Failure to complete remedial college math is often cited as the No. 1 academic reason for dropping out.

The City University of New York has implemented a simple but extremely effective solution to this problem. Instead of students taking separate remedial math courses before they’re eligible for college-level courses, they enroll directly in college-level classes and simultaneously get academic support for the coursework. That support, called “corequisite remediation,” consists of small workshops or extra class time.

A three-year randomized controlled trial compared the results of corequisite remediation (in which students went ahead with a college-level statistics class while getting academic support on the side) versus traditional algebra remediation (where students took a separate remedial course in preparation for a college-level class). The research by Alexandra Logue (The Graduate Center), Dan Douglas (recent CUNY Ph.D. recipient, now an assistant professor at Trinity College), and Mari Watanabe-Rose (Office of Academic Affairs, CUNY) is laid out in their article in the journal Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis.

“The results show corequisite mathematics is effective at increasing students’ success over time and in different contexts,” the authors wrote. Students assigned to college-level statistics with corequisite remediation “were significantly more likely to have graduated” in three years and “more likely to have passed advanced mathematics courses.”

The authors offer several explanations for why corequisite remediation works. For one thing, some students may be more capable of handling college-level work than placement tests suggest. Another is that “assigning a student to a college-level, as compared with a remedial, course can be more motivating,” the authors wrote. “A student assigned to a remedial course may have a delayed graduation, may have to retake an aversive high school course, and/or may feel stigmatized.”

In addition, students may have an easier time passing college-level statistics than remedial algebra because statistics is less abstract and involves more real-world examples. Finally, pairing remediation with a college-level class means there’s one less “exit point” for potential dropouts.

The authors also noted that “students assessed as needing remediation are more likely to be members of underrepresented groups and to be from families with limited financial resources.” That means any program that increases graduation rates also helps “close racial/ethnic/economic performance gaps.”

In an essay in Inside Higher Ed, Logue lamented persistent resistance in the academic community to corequisite remediation, even though “study after study has shown higher course pass rates” compared to traditional remediation. “The higher education community has a responsibility to spread this message far and wide,” she wrote. “Co-requisite remediation increases student success.”