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It costs students $1.5 billion per year to take high school courses in college

LA School Report | April 6, 2016

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NPRBy Anya Kamenetz

When Andrea Diaz was applying to colleges, she got good news and bad news. The good news was that American University, a private four-year university in Washington, D.C., wanted her. The bad news was that it required her to come to campus early to take two summer developmental-level courses in math and English.

“I was traumatized by it,” says Diaz, “because I felt that they didn’t see in me the potential to do well in college.”

When is a college course not really a college course? When it’s classified as “developmental,” or, less euphemistically, “remedial.” These courses cover material considered high-school level, typically in math or English composition.

“It was teaching us sentence structure and how to write an essay and verbs and pronouns,” Diaz says of the English course she took as a pre-frosh. “It was such an elementary course, I was very surprised.”

College students who don’t meet academic standards or can’t pass a placement test must take these courses to graduate. They typically pay tuition as for any other course. But often, these courses don’t count for credit.

When we talk about remedial courses, we usually talk about community colleges, where more than half of students take them, and where they pose a significant barrier to graduation for many.

But a new report from the advocacy group Education Reform Now and the advocacy publication Education Post broadens the lens. According to their analysis of state and federal higher education data, 45 percent of students who place into remedial courses come from middle- and high-income families. That describes Diaz, who attended private school in the affluent Sherman Oaks section of Los Angeles.

This was what Michael Dannenberg, a co-author of the report, calls a “whoa” moment: “realizing that students from all income backgrounds are suffering the consequences of mediocre high schools.”

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