Heather Hollingsworth

OVERLAND PARK, KAN.: Each year, an estimated 1.7 million U.S. college students are steered to remedial classes to catch them up and prepare them for regular coursework. But a growing body of research shows the courses are eating up time and money, often leading not to degrees but to student loan hangovers.

The expense of remedial courses, which typically cost students the same as regular classes but don’t fulfill degree requirements, run about $3 billion annually, according to new research by Complete College America, a Washington-based national nonprofit working to increase the number of students with a college degree.

The group says the classes are largely failing the nation’s higher education system at a time when student-loan debt has become a presidential campaign issue. Meanwhile, lawmakers in at least two states have pushed through changes and numerous institutions are redesigning the courses.

“Simply putting [students] in three levels of remedial math is really taking their money and time with no hope of success,” said Stan Jones, president of Complete College America.

The group’s research shows just one in 10 remedial students graduate from community colleges within three years and a little more than a third complete bachelor’s degrees in six years. Yet the classes are widespread, with more than 50 percent of students entering two-year colleges and nearly 20 percent of those entering four-year universities put in at least one remedial course, the report said.

“At the end of the day if we could say that we are getting more students to graduate, particularly those coming into college without the requisite skills, the investment we have now is worth it,” said Bruce Vandal, director of postsecondary education for the Education Commission of the States, a nonpartisan group that researches education policy. “I think the fact that we aren’t getting that result is why legislators and policymakers are up in arms and rightfully so.”

Legislation passed earlier this month in Kansas prohibits four-year universities from using state funds to provide remedial courses.

Research shows placement exams routinely misplace students in remedial courses, and colleges would do so far less often if they also examined high school transcripts, said Davis Jenkins, a senior researcher at the Community College Research Center at Teachers College at Columbia University in New York.

Jenkins recommends doing away with the one-size-fits-all college algebra requirement and having math classes tailored to a few broad areas of study. For instance, those studying history, law or psychology might take a class focused more on statistics.

“It just kills their desire for learning,” Jenkins said, noting that some students are being placed in classes that make them basically redo middle school pre-algebra.

The Complete College America report also says research shows half or more of remedial students would be better off being placed in required classes and having the schools building in extra help, such as tutors or more frequent class meetings.

The report said institutions that have used those approaches have seen their unprepared students succeed at the same rates as their college-ready peers.

Such an approach worked well for Jessica Grubb, 22. After years of struggling, the Texas State University special education major knocked out her math requirement during a summer class that met from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. five days a week. She now works as a math tutor.

“This program has literally changed my life,” she said,