Ohio’s college remediation rate is dropping: Why?

College may not be for all, but it is the chosen path of nearly fifty thousand Ohio high school grads. Unfortunately, almost one-third of Ohio’s college goers are unprepared for the academic rigor of post-secondary coursework. To better ensure that all incoming students are equipped with the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in university courses, all Ohio public colleges and universities require their least prepared students to enroll in remedial, non-credit-bearing classes (primarily in math and English).

Remediation is a burden on college students and taxpayers who pay twice. First they shell out to the K–12 system. Then they pay additional taxes toward the state’s higher education system, this time for the cost of coursework that should have been completed prior to entering college (and for which students earn no college credit). The remediation costs further emphasize the importance of every student arriving on campus prepared.

Perhaps the bigger problem with remedial education is that it doesn’t work very well. In Ohio, just 51 percent of freshmen requiring remediation at a flagship university—and 38 percent of those in remedial classes at a non-flagship school—go on to complete entry-level college courses within two academic years. It’s even worse at community colleges: Just 22 percent of students go on to take a college course that is not remedial.  

While far too many college-bound students in Ohio aren’t ready for college upon matriculating, the Buckeye State has made some progress in recent years. Back in 2012, 40 percent of entering college students required remedial coursework, raising concerns of an Ohio college remediation rate crisis. But the three most recent years of data show Ohio’s remediation rate has decreased to 37 percent in 2013, and now to 32 percent for the high school graduating class of 2014. According to the Ohio Department of Higher Education’s most recent report, more students required math remediation (28 percent) than English (13 percent), and 10 percent of first-time students enrolled in both remedial math and English courses.

Table 1. Remediation by subject area

Source: Ohio Department of Higher Education, “2015 Ohio Remediation Report”

In the absence of rigorous research, we can only speculate about what’s behind this drop in remediation rates. One possible explanation is that fewer students who need remedial education are going straight to college. If this were true, we might expect to see college-going rates declining commensurately with the decrease in remediation rates. But college-going rates, while falling between 2009 and 2013, jumped by 5.6 percent from 2013 to 2014. Though we can’t rule it out entirely, this suggests that college-going trends are probably not a leading explanation for the recent fall in remediation.

Another possibility is that the population of students going to college in 2014 was actually better prepared than in previous years. Thirty-two percent of first-time college students in 2014 required remediation upon entry, compared to 41 percent of first-time students in 2009. Between 2009 and 2014, Ohio implemented higher K–12 educational standards; it is possible that we’re starting to see the fruit of those efforts. (In 2012, Ohio began implementing the Common Core academic standards in math and English language arts, along with new learning standards in science and social studies.) At the very least, it doesn’t appear that rising academic standards are having an adverse impact on college readiness. Despite all the travails, the new learning standards might be giving Ohio’s young people a modest boost when it comes to readiness. Not bad!

Or maybe the credit goes to the implementation of Ohio’s “remediation-free” standards in 2013. Ohio’s standards (for public colleges and universities) detail the competencies and ACT/SAT scores each student must achieve in order to enroll in credit-bearing courses. Now students can predict from their ACT subject scores whether they’ll be able to directly enroll in credit-bearing courses. Many states and colleges opt to enroll all students in credit-bearing coursework with increased support instead of offering remedial courses. But Ohio’s standards fail to address how remedial students must be served and whether their remedial status bars them from acquiring credit even with increased support. However, these statewide standards are also being used to hold high schools accountable for college-preparedness; remediation-free status is now also incorporated in the Prepared for Success measure on the state’s school report cards. Maybe this policy is working as intended—encouraging students to improve their reading and math skills before they reach campus.

Further, it is worth considering whether Ohio’s remediation rate decline is being driven by the incentives its colleges and universities face. Public funding for higher education in Ohio is not linked to the remediation rate, but 50 percent of funding for two-year and four-year institutions is determined by the percentage of degree completions (the graduation rate), which also heavily impacts college rankings. To increase graduation rates and rankings, many universities may seek to decrease the number of students they accept who fall below the remediation-free threshold. Still, this preference does not change the number of students in need of remediation as determined by their ACT score.

Ohio’s declining need for remedial education is good news, though there’s still a ways to go before all students matriculating to college are truly ready for it. It’s not entirely clear what is driving this trend—whether it’s enrollment patterns, policy implementation, a bit of both, or other explanations that we didn’t consider. Certainly more research and analysis on this topic is needed to determine causation. In the meantime, we’ll need to monitor how the remediation trend unfolds in the years to come. The falling remediation rates at least indicate that the state is moving in the right direction. If Ohio can stay the course and maintain high academic standards and a focus on college preparedness, the gap between college aspirations and college readiness will hopefully close even further.