Yes: They shore up academic standards while democratizing higher education.
By Stanley O. Ikenberry Ikenberry, formerly president of the University of Illinois, is president of the American Council on Education, an independent nonprofit association in Washington.
The truth is, no one likes remedial education. No one likes to fix an educational deficiency. It would be easier for faculty members and better for colleges if everyone came to college already in possession of all they needed to know in order to pursue whatever program they might desire. In my 46 years as president of the University of Illinois, I cannot recall having met a fan of remedial education. And yet Illinois, like nearly every other university in the country, offers such courses and programs.
The question is: Why? Why do some of the top universities in the country offer remedial-education courses? Where do these students come from in the first place? And, why aren't admission standards higher to screen out the unprepared?
Universities offer students the opportunity to remove deficiencies because they care about quality and the enforcement of academic standards. Freshmen are not the only students who take remedial courses. It is not unusual for medical schools, colleges of engineering, law schools and others to require students to fix academic deficiencies before they go on. This is, in essence, an important form of quality control. If those who argue for total elimination of remedial education are interested in academic quality and standards, they should think again.
Who are these students needing remediation? Some, it is me, have coasted through high school; and some, ultimately, may be unable to perform at the college level. But many more have deficiencies for other reasons: The high school they attended simply did not offer the courses they needed to prepare them for college, and that is a special problem in areas such as science and mathematics. Some are immigrants needing help with English or writing, and once that is provided, they do remarkably well. Other students have a deficiency because their interests changed midway through matriculation -- they began college thinking they were interested in business, but later turned their attention to chemistry or computer engineering.
So, if fixing academic deficiencies boosts quality, and if significant numbers of students are likely to need help at one point or another, what should be done? I see three options:
First, just say no: Bar unprepared students from enrolling. The problem with this solution is not just the consequences for the students, but that the economy, the country and the society cannot tolerate it. America simply cannot survive economically unless most citizens have some education beyond high school.
Others would say: Legislate remediation out of existence. But such action would cheapen the value of a college degree and undermine the competitiveness of America in the international marketplace. Ignoring academic deficiencies rather than fixing them is the first step toward lowering academic expectations and standards.
The only acceptable answer is to fix the deficiency. And here, of course, the questions become: When? Where? By whom? How quickly? And, how efficiently can it be done?
The spotlight now is on the City University of New York, or CUNY, where the Board of Trustees recently approved a proposal to eliminate remedial instruction at all of the four-year colleges in the system. CUNY's decision, however, is only the latest salvo in the battle being waged over remediation. Indeed, the cost of remedial education is a burden to some institutions, and colleges and universities around the country are struggling with this age-old academic dilemma that suddenly has taken on political and ideological dimensions.
Trustees and other policymakers become impatient with the debate about remedial education. …