Monday, May 19, 2014

The Remedial Disconnect

By Professor Doom

     The people doing the actual teaching in higher education know that the biggest problem is in remediation. Simple statements of fact: more than 90% of community college work is at the high school (i.e., remedial) level or lower. More than 90% of remedial students fail to get at least a 2 year degree within 3 years. Those are only two dots, and yet administrators and educationists are simply unable to connect them. 

     A large percentage of community college students fail to perform academically, almost certainly because they’re at the school simply to get a check. Just a bit of effort to cut down on fraud would go a long way to fixing this glaring problem.

      A recent article at Insider Higher Ed just glosses over these facts, and instead suggests the way to deal with remediation is…wait for it…wait for it…to pour more money into the system. Despite being written by an educationist, the article is fairly coherent, although quite ignorant of the reality of what’s going on in higher education.

     Let’s have a bit of a dissection of what’s said:

“require that they address non-academic issues that may prevent students from succeeding,”

     This is an important problem; many of the students in my remedial classes had to deal with legal issues (often drug related, but sometimes actually criminal, like…scamming for government checks), or were pregnant, or had multiple infants to take care of. The article doesn’t offer suggestions, and I just don’t know how to address students that have to spend time in jail (or at least the courts) during the semester. I’ve always been willing to work with students that have tiny children to deal with, but ultimately, the material has been watered down to the sub-high school level, and assignments are basically non-existent. Content free, assignment free courses are the norm at many schools, and that should go a long way to facilitating success. What else is there to do?

 “improve the quality of instruction at all levels,”

Certainly this is a nice, obvious suggestion. Seriously, is anyone advocating reducing the quality of instruction? The educationist here seems to be unaware admin is very motivated to pay as little as possible (every dollar not spent on instruction is a dollar available for administrative salary, after all), and knows they can pay much less when they hire dubiously qualified instructors.

revise financial aid policies, “

“Revise”? Holy crap, even mainstream media acknowledges as much as 25% of student grant money is given fraudulently, and my own eyes would put it somewhat higher (but still somewhat below half). This is the only hint in the whole article that, maybe, the problem with remedial students failing is because…they’re not there to learn.

“provide better advising to students at risk,”

Again, I’m glad to see the educationist isn’t advising to provide worse advising, but I have to admit, for an educationist to even state what is obvious to normal people is pretty good. Thing is, years ago, students had to see an advisor before they could sign up for classes. Now, in many institutions, students can just take whatever, as long as the course has no pre-requisites, and most courses, especially the courses admin likes to offer, have no pre-requisites. So it’s quite common to have students with many dozens of hours of introductory courses, and with no actual skills that anyone is willing to pay for.

Administration killed the advisor system, because without advisors students could hurt themselves throwing away vast sums of loan money on pointless courses. How does the educationist not know this?

integrate instruction and support services,”

Again, no kidding. It’s funny, attempts to do this have been completely disastrous. How does he not know this?

“teach college success skills,"

Good advice…but if you’d just get rid of the scammers, that would do far more good than adding yet more empty credit hours in worthless “college success” courses that will be of no value when it comes time to get a job.

“invest in professional development"

Oh, please no. Year after year, I’ve been subjected to professional development by educationists and diversity specialists. It gives me great anecdotes, but I’d belong in Hell if I actually bought into that crap material.

Having actually taught remedial courses, it seems so obvious to me: just get rid of all the scammers, and you’ll see massive improvement in passing rates, and you’ll see it quickly.

Let me demonstrate. Let’s suppose we have 100 remedial students. Basically 50% pass the course, the other 50% don’t try (and are almost certainly there for the check). Let’s say 10 of these 100 students will actually get a degree within 3 years (I emphasize, this is better than what real data says what will happen). That’s a 10% graduation rate.
But get rid of the obvious scammers right away? Now you’ve got 10 of 50 students actually getting a degree. That’s a 20% graduation rate. Hey, I’ve just doubled the effectiveness of remediation, and that’s without changing a thing.

The only reason 50% pass remedial is because standards have been lowered so far that students can literally accidentally pass these courses; put real standards in and make the courses legitimate, identify the fraudsters more easily, and there will be further improvement.

But, for some reason, the article never mentions this stupid-obvious thing to try.
Instead, the article goes on in some detail about all the ways we could spend more money on an education system that is mostly bogus, on hiring more administrators to enforce more bogus standards, and on having more evaluation methods of the bogus remedial courses.

As is so often the case, what an educationist has to say is massively disconnected from the reality of what’s going on. Get rid of the fraud, and you’ll do far more for education than yet another hi-falutin’ untested theory.


  1. At my university, I was not required to see an advisor before I could sign up for classes unless I needed some kind of special permission (I had to do that once or twice). However, the course catalog contained the list of courses required for any major or minor (students were admitted directly into the major without having to "declare" it but could choose a minor later). In some cases, there was a limited choice among a few courses or sequences of courses. We didn't have to take a minor. That was my choice. I could have taken some elective courses (I don't remember whether there were any particular restrictions in that case). Basically, it was a matter of choosing from a list (or even two lists, if taking a minor). However, at the beginning of the last semester, one had to "apply" for graduation and pay a $40 fee. I don't know if anybody who completed all the required courses forgot to apply on time and if so, what happened.

    Can't students basically follow a checklist? Back then, I wasn't even aware that students were allowed to take any courses outside the program and not required by the university. I wish I did that just a little. But don't students realize that if they don't take the right courses, they won't be able to graduate? Or is it because the course selection guidelines are very confusing nowadays or basically nonexistent?

  2. Oh, the course guidelines are still there, and I'm sure there are still checklists for each major. The problem, of course, is that students are under no obligation to take anything in particular at any time, nor is there is human guidance to make the students are making progress towards some sort of degree.

    So, assuming a legitimate student, what happens is typically like this.

    Semester 1: "I want to be a veterinarian, I love working with animals!"

    Student signs up for biology, fails. Signs up for some goofy courses, does well in them.

    Semester 2: "I want to be an engineer!"

    Student signs up for calculus, fails. Signs up for some goofy courses, unrelated to the others.

    Semester 3: "I want to be a doctor!"

    Signs up for biology, fails again. SIgns up for some goofy courses.

    Semester 4: "I want to be a poet."

    Signs up for English LIt 101, just barely passes, signs up for some goofy courses.

    Semester 5: "I want to be a poet."

    Signs up for English Lit 201, finds out you have to write 10 paper, something that never happened in the previous 4 semesters. Takes goofy courses.

    Semester 6: "I want to be a psychiatrist!"

    Signs up for Psych 101, does well, but because the previous 3 years are wasted courses, will need 3 more years. Eventually, student gets stuck by biology or calculus again, settles for a psychology degree with not enough material to press forward...

    1. Are those students really there for a degree or are they just looking for something else such as a suitable spouse or waiting until they can manage their own inheritance (sometimes the required age is higher than the age of majority) or until their parents may give them a job in the family business or otherwise set them up for life?

      On occasion, someone who cannot get a degree or who cannot realistically expect to work is still signing up for classes like that mentally handicapped woman in the pottery class. They may do it for the experience or, if possible, for the accomplishment.

    2. I'm not under the impression people still go to college to look for a spouse, except for some minority.

      I don't have a problem with people going to college as life fulfillment, or other reasons besides getting a degree, BUT:

      As soon as you put college loan money on the table, then going to college becomes a financial decision. You don't take out a loan to go to Disney World, you don't take out a loan to go to a nice restaurant, you don't take out a loan to get a pair of shoes. The only reason to take out a loan is because you figure the loan will give you a way to pay back the loan.

    3. It may be an unwise decision, but people do, in fact, take a loan to go to Disney World or to a nice restaurant or to get a pair of shoes. They just use credit cards. In fact, technically, as long as a credit card is used, a loan is taken even if the expense is paid in full before interest is due. Loans don't necessarily pay for themselves either. Sometimes there is an advantage in paying a financial penalty later for having seized an opportunity while out of money. I would even argue that borrowing while young is just borrowing from one's future income. It might make sense to have fun while young and pay the price later, when the fun may not look like fun any more. I wish I took some trips as a young person even if I would still be paying my credit card bills for them to this day. The experience would have been worth it and I had more time and energy back then.

    4. Fair enough, it's an unwise decision...but it's predatory to take advantage of the young to get into abusive contracts when they don't know any better. Would you think it wrong for me to hunt down 10 year olds, and trick them into giving up everything they have for magic beans? How about 14 year olds? 18 year olds? At what point should integrity "get in the way" of tricking young people into making bad decisions? We have young people getting $30,000 into debt to get a degree in Queer Musicology (the musical preferences of homosexuals). How is this different that selling people the Brooklyn Bridge?

      If that's still not good enough, note that Federal loans are backed by taxpayer money, and student loans have a pretty high default rate (especially at for-profit colleges, which are very predatory), meaning the lender gets stuck with the bill. I'm a taxpayer; why should *I* be forced to pay for someone else's trip to Disney World?

    5. The problem is that most people would get a degree for the jobs and potential earnings they expect and then that hope is not realized, yet they are stuck with the bills. I can see how, for example, it could be easy to fall into the trap of getting a law degree when there are not too many jobs for lawyers and the school is not very good. However, Queer Musicology is more obviously a degree for those who can afford it and don't expect to find a job. Even at 18 or so, people should know better and perhaps many of them do and make a choice, even if it's the choice to pay for such a degree. The problem is when the trap is not quite as obvious because the "opportunity" seems more realistic or does indeed pay handsomely in the relatively few cases when it works out (think of all the potential actors who end up waiting tables).