No Pell for remedial courses?

Pell Grants should go only to college-ready students, proposes Mike Petrilli of the Fordham Foundation on Bloomberg View.

“A huge proportion” of the $40 billion annual federal investment in college aid is going to unprepared students, he asserts.

About two-thirds of low-income community-college students — and one-third of poor students at four-year colleges — need remedial (aka “developmental”) education, according to Complete College America, a nonprofit group. But it’s not working: Less than 10 percent of students who start in remedial education graduate from community college within three years, and just 35 percent of remedial students earn a four-year degree within six years.

Currently, Pell recipients in a “program of study” — they say they’re seeking a credential —  can take remedial courses for one year before losing benefits. Petrilli suggests cutting off Pell aid for remedial students.

Ambitious, low-income high-school students would know that if they want to attend college at public expense (probably their only option), they would first need to become “college-ready.” This would provide a clear sign and incentives for them to work hard, take college-prep classes and raise their reading and math skills to the appropriate level.

Many low-income students wouldn’t go to college without Pell support for remedial courses, Petrilli concedes. That “cuts against the American tradition of open access, as well as second and third chances.”

But it’s not clear unprepared students benefit by enrolling in college remedial courses, he writes. Most drop out long before they complete a degree or certificate. (Most drop out before they take a single college-level class.) “Many would be more successful in job-training programs that don’t require college-level work (or would be better off simply gaining skills on the job).” 

Eliminating remedial Pell would free up money to boost the maximum grant for needy, college-ready students.

Colleges could respond by giving credit for courses that used to be considered “remedial,” Petrilli writes.

Indeed they could. Placing poorly prepared students in credit-bearing courses, with extra help to learn basic skills, already is a trend due to the high failure rates in traditional remedial ed.

Remedial education costs millions of dollars a year with very poor results, said Stan Jones of Complete College America at the Education Writers Association conference last week at Stanford. “We pride ourselves on access, but access to what? Most never access a true college course.”

Of half a million new community college students in remedial education every year, “maybe 20 percent” will move on to college-level courses, said Carnegie’s Alicia Grunow. “We’re killing the aspirations of hundreds of thousands of students every year.”

POSTED BY Joanne Jacobs ON May 6, 2013

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Rachel McDonnell

Mike Petrelli of the Fordham Foundation is right to be concerned about the high number of students using up valuable Pell dollars in developmental courses, but the solution is not to eliminate access to Pell for students who are not college ready. Without Pell, these students would have few viable options for attaining the postsecondary credentials that research shows to be increasingly essential for obtaining living wage employment. And despite the author’s assertion that the 30% of jobs requiring a high school diploma or less will keep young adults “out of the grip of poverty,” the fact is that many of these jobs fail to provide a family-supporting wage or opportunities for advancement.

Petrelli also focuses his arguments on students coming out of high school, and rightly places the responsibility of preparing them for college on the K12 system. This however ignores the fact that a large number of community college students are older and returning to school to advance their careers. These adults often test into remedial courses simply because they have been out of school for a number of years and need to brush up math and English skills before entering college-level courses, and would not be able to pay for those classes out-of-pocket.

Rather than penalize students who test into remedial courses, we need to focus our efforts instead on ways to make these courses work better for students so that more of them can successfully meet their higher education attainment goals. Across the country we are seeing states and colleges investing in strategies to reduce the amount of time students spend in developmental education and to make those classes more relevant to students’ goals by integrating them with career pathway programs.

Eliminating Pell for remedial courses would be a disincentive to pursuing these innovative approaches. We need to continue finding ways to help underprepared students succeed in higher education, not dissuade them from attending altogether.

Rachel Pleasants McDonnell
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