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Remedial Education at Higher Education Institutions in Fall 1995
NCES 97584
October 1996


The role of remediation in higher education is the subject of ongoing debate. Publications as varied as those from the Southern Regional Education Board and the National Center for Developmental Education, and the New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Chronicle of Higher Education have discussed the appropriateness of remediation on college campuses -- for example, should it be encouraged because it expands educational opportunities to underprepared students, or should it be discouraged because precollege-level courses have no place on college campuses? Recent media reports indicate that numerous states and institutions are considering policies or laws that affect remedial education offerings. Proposals include concentrating remediation in community colleges rather than in 4-year institutions, limiting remedial coursework to the freshman year, limiting the number of remedial courses offered, requiring public school systems to reimburse colleges for remediation needed by public school graduates, and prohibiting the use of state money to pay for remedial coursework. For example:

  • The State University of New York, which has both 2-year and 4-year campuses, is considering limiting remedial courses at its 4-year campuses and requiring most students who need remediation to take remedial courses through the community colleges (Chronicle of Higher Education, November 3, 1995).
  • The City University of New York, which also has both 2-year and 4-year campuses, will no longer accept students at its 4- year colleges who cannot complete remedial courses within the freshman year; any student needing more remediation will have to take it in night school or community college (New York Times, June 27, 1995).
  • The California State University System, which has only 4-year campuses, will phase out most remedial classes by 2007, with the goal of reducing the number of students who need remediation to 10 percent of the total by 2007 (Chronicle of Higher Education, December 15, 1995, and March 1, 1996).
  • State legislatures in New Jersey, Montana, and Florida recently have considered measures that would force public school systems to pay for any remedial work a public school graduate must take in college (New York Times, June 7, 1995; The Washington Post, April 30, 1995).
  • The state legislature in Washington considered a bill to prohibit using state money to pay for any remedial work (New York Times, June 7, 1995).

This study on remedial education in higher education institutions was designed to provide current national estimates about the extent of remediation on college campuses to inform this ongoing debate. The study examined participation in college-level remedial education, characteristics of remedial courses and programs, and policies or laws that affect remedial education. Results from this study also provide information about changes in remedial education since 1983-84 and 1989, when the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) conducted two previous surveys on remedial education at higher education institutions.

To retain comparability with these two previous studies, the current study included 2-year and 4-year higher education institutions that enrolled freshman students and asked about freshman enrollments in remedial courses, even though remediation is not entirely a freshman phenomenon. Institutions were asked to supply information about their remedial program if they provided any remedial reading, writing, or mathematics courses in fall 1995. For purposes of this study, remedial education courses were defined as courses in reading, writing, or mathematics for college students lacking those skills necessary to perform college-level work at the level required by the institution. Thus, what constituted remedial courses varied from institution to institution. Throughout the questionnaire, these courses were referred to as "remedial." However, respondents were asked to include any courses meeting the definition, regardless of name. Institutions may use other names for remedial courses, such as "compensatory," "developmental," or "basic skills."

The following institutional characteristics were used as variables for analyzing the survey data:

  • Type of institution: public 2-year, private 2-year, public 4- year, private 4-year. Type was created from a combination of level (2-year, 4-year) and control (public, private). Two-year institutions are defined as institutions at which the highest level of offering is at least 2 but less than 4 years (below the baccalaureate degree); 4-year institutions are those at which the highest level of offering is 4 or more years (baccalaureate or higher degree).1 Private comprises private nonprofit and private for-profit institutions; these private institutions are reported together because there are too few private for-profit institutions in the sample for this survey to report them as a separate category.
  • Minority enrollment: low, high. Institutions with high minority enrollment are defined for this study as those institutions where the total student enrollment, excluding nonresident aliens, is less than 50 percent white, non-Hispanic.

The survey was conducted in fall 1995 by the National Center for Education Statistics using the Postsecondary Education Quick Information System (PEQIS). PEQIS is designed to collect limited amounts of policy-relevant information on a quick turnaround basis from a previously recruited, nationally representative sample of postsecondary institutions. PEQIS surveys are generally limited to two to three pages of questions with a response burden of 30 minutes per respondent.2 The survey was mailed to the PEQIS survey coordinators at 849 2-year and 4-year higher education institutions.3 Coordinators were told that the survey was designed to be completed by the person at the institution who was most knowledgeable about the institution's remedial education courses. The unweighted survey response rate is 94 percent (the weighted survey response rate is 96 percent). Data were adjusted for questionnaire nonresponse and weighted to provide national estimates. The section of this report on survey methodology and data reliability provides a more detailed discussion of the sample and survey methodology. The survey questionnaire is reproduced in appendix B.

All specific statements of comparison made in this report have been tested for statistical significance through chi-square tests and t-tests adjusted for multiple comparisons using the Bonferroni adjustment and are significant at the 95 percent confidence level or better. However, not all statistically different comparisons have been presented, since some were not of substantive importance.

1 Definitions for level are from the data file documentation for the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) Institutional Characteristics file, U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.

2 Additional information about PEQIS is presented in the methodology section of this report.

3 Higher education institutions are institutions accredited at the college level by an agency recognized by the Secretary, U.S. Department of Education, and are a subset of all postsecondary education institutions.