Why Do So Many Students Take Remedial Classes in College?

My first year of teaching at my current school I was given a Calculus I course. I was scared to death. Calculus! It had been six years since I had done any math above an Algebra I level, and I had never taught anything above an Algebra I course.

The Calculus class is entirely elective at my school, so all the students that were in my class all wanted to be there to some extent. They should therefore represent some of the most academically driven students we have. We also offer dual enrollment options through the area schools. One day one of the students in my first Calculus class asked me for some help with some of his college math homework. As I was helping him I asked him what class he was taking at the community college because the math questions seemed lower than the topics we were working on in Calculus. He responded that he was working on a College Algebra class.

I was shocked. Here was this student who had passed Algebra I, Geometry, Algebra II, Pre-Calculus, currently in Calculus I, maintaining a good GPA, staying on honor roll, and would eventually graduate near the top of his class, but he was struggling in College Algebra at community college. While he was my first personal experience with this phenomenon I started asking around and found out that it was kind of common for a college bound students to be placed into remediation.

I started to hypothesize why this was happening and came up with some possibilities.

It’s all a conspiracy for colleges to make more money.

Think about it. We tell students they get free college. Colleges get extra state funding that would normally be sent to public schools. Incentive exists to have a placement test that forces students to start at remedial classes. That way high school students would have to take at least two math classes at the college before receiving even credit for one college level math class, which means more money for the college. The colleges can hide their greed behind the placement test scores and deflect blame to the bad high school teachers.

While I think there is an element of plausibility to the idea of a conspiracy, I have too much faith in educators at any level to be driven by greed.

The students just don’t test well.

Anxiety is a very, very real issue. But, ugh, come on.

If I am writing off the idea of anxiety as a reason for remediation. how is it possible that a student appears to be excelling in my class, but struggling with the same topic in another setting?

It’s my fault. I suck at teaching.

If it’s not the student and it’s not about greed, then it must be my fault. At least I am not alone in being a crappy teacher though. Roughly 20% of all college freshmen will take some sort of remedial class, and of those in the remedial classes, 4 out of 5 had GPA’s above 3.0. Since the early 2000s colleges have turned increasingly to placement tests like the Accuplacer, or standardized tests scores, like the ACT, to determine if students are academically ready for college level work. Colleges just want to make sure that students are prepared for the work they will encounter. I thought my students were doing well, colleges didn’t, therefore I suck.


It was during that year that I realized that there was something wrong with the way I had experienced education. I was 26, in my first year at my current job, and had never previously questioned the whole system. Sure, I had the sympathetic talks about schools being like prison, or generic work ethic or critical thinking dialogues with students, but I had always believed in the piety of the enterprise. That year started me on a journey that I have never abandoned.


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