The Costs of Remedial Education
A decade ago, education expert Dr. Jay P. Greene published a study for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan about the direct costs of developmental (or remedial) education for colleges and industry. His conservative estimate then was that developmental education cost Michigan an astounding $601 million each year, and cost the entire United States $16.6 billion.
His figure does not take into account intangibles like lost productivity, college classes that must be taught at a lower level of comprehension, loss of human capital and some mechanization costs that are necessary to circumvent the lack of skill within the workforce (like installing cash registers that automatically dispense change).
The numbers tell a troubling story about the state of public education. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in Missouri alone had an allocation of $5.4 billion in 2010; some school districts spend as much as $22,000 per student. Clearly, not all of this money translates into higher educational outcomes. (See below for a map of school district spending per student created by Audrey Spalding.)
Achieving the Dream, a research group focused on improving community college students’ educations, reported that 60 percent of community college students took a developmental course, but that the number of students in need of these courses was undoubtedly higher. Community colleges tend to absorb the majority of remedial class costs, because they often serve as a bridge from high school to a four-year institution.
Community colleges in Missouri received $148,377,417 in appropriations for 2010. How much of this is devoted to remedial education? Michigan colleges devoted an estimate of between 6 to 33 percent of their budgets on remedial courses; if Missouri colleges are at all similar to that, this entails a substantial amount of money being devoted to teaching skills like reading, algebra, and trigonometry that should have been learned in high school.
In February of this year, the agenda for the Coordinating Board of Higher Education created a new Developmental Education Data and Policy Task Force (DEDPT) to quantify this problem in Missouri. Its stated purpose:
Too many freshmen (both traditional and nontraditional) are not adequately prepared for collegiate work. As a result, substantial numbers of entering students are forced to take remedial coursework to address shortcomings in their preparation and to achieve mastery of the knowledge and skills needed to be successful college students. […]
The DEDPT was established to work with MDHE staff to understand better the variation in definitions used by different institutions and sectors and to make recommendations for uniform data definitions about developmental students and coursework. This work will better position Missouri to implement strategies to reduce the need for remediation and shorten time-to-degree.
The task force will bring clarity to the true scope of the inadequate preparation being imparted by the public schools in Missouri. This is a good first step, but beyond just mapping the problems, immediate steps can be taken to address these concerns and improve education before the college level. For example, a Show-Me Institute study showed that charter schools have been shown to increase competition and improve educational outcomes. At any rate, Missouri and states across the country are spending far too much money on education for such a large group of students to graduate without acquiring basic skills.
(Jay Greene spoke last month in Kansas City at a Show-Me Institute event about education reform. The audio of his speech is now available on the Show-Me Institute website.)