A Big Grant Aims to Save Students From the Remediation "Trap" on Campus

The most common definition of college readiness includes a level of academic preparation to succeed in college without remediation. By that standard, far too many college students fall short.

A 2012 report by Complete College America (CCA) estimated that 50 percent of community college students and 20 percent of four-year college students arrive on campus without sufficient preparation and must enroll in remedial courses. These consume time and financial aid dollars, but do not bear credit. To make matters worse, the remediation is not making much of a difference in terms of college success. Few students who take remediation complete college-level “gateway” courses in English and math, and less than a third of these students complete a degree. CCA has dubbed remediation higher education’s “bridge to nowhere.”

Unfortunately, low-income students, first-generation students, and students of color are more likely to end up on this bridge, as data indicate they are the most likely to require enrollment in remedial college courses. Many of them subsequently drop out, having taken remedial courses with nothing to show for it.

Great Lakes Higher Education Guaranty is the latest funder to try to address this problem by helping more at-risk students avoid remediation and raise their likelihood of completing a college degree. Recently, Great Lakes unveiled a new college-ready grant program, providing $4.2 million for two years of additional instruction to help 800 high school juniors on the cusp of college readiness reach the benchmarks required to avoid the remediation trap. Nine programs in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Minnesota will receive the funds.

The programs funded by Great Lakes will identify 800 high school students who enter their junior years testing below reading and math proficiency benchmarks on the ACT, Compass, and Accuplacer tests. Scores on placement tests such as these are often used to determine if students have sufficient preparation for college-level work.

College readiness grantmaking is definitely in Great Lakes’ wheelhouse. Since 2012, the nonprofit student loan servicer has funded similar programs in the past to increase students' academic preparedness, helping them bypass remediation. What’s more, the funder is paying attention to lessons learned from previous grants and adjusting its activities accordingly. An evaluation of data from previous grantees found, for example, that only one year of additional instruction is not enough for many at-risk students. The evaluation also suggested a more targeted approach, rather than serving a broad spectrum of students with varying levels of need.

These findings inform Great Lakes’ latest college readiness grant program, which will operate through 2017. In addition to these college readiness grants, Great Lakes also has supported programs to improve access to paid internships for college students receiving need-based financial aid.

Ensuring more academically prepared students is one of the best ways to increase college success and graduation rates, especially among student populations that have been historically underrepresented in higher education. It makes perfect sense to us that the way to address this problem is in high school, before students arrive on campus as college freshmen.

Related: Look at This Round of Grants for College Access and Success in the Great Lakes