News ID: 196390
Published: 0555 GMT July 10, 2017

College not always the answer

College not always the answer

US Representative Tim Walz late last month introduced the Remedial Education Improvement Act, a bill to provide grants to colleges and universities to create and expand remedial education programs.

This legislation is designed to address the serious and growing problem of millions of students enrolling in college without the skills necessary to study a college curriculum, according to

Undoubtedly, deficiencies in high school instruction have partly caused this problem. But a more significant cause is the push for every high school graduate to enroll in college. The answer to this problem, then, is not to create additional remedial programs in colleges. Instead, we need to remove the stigma attached to students who choose to pursue college alternatives.

Technical schools, apprenticeship programs and the military all may better fit the abilities and interests of the student, especially a student at an academic disadvantage. Those alternatives to college, however, are often incorrectly viewed by society as second-tier and a poor economic decision.

Unprepared students enrolling in college is a massive problem. As Walz pointed out, one-third of all students enrolling in college are academically unprepared. To address this deficiency, 29 percent of students in public four-year colleges and 51 percent of students in public two-year colleges currently take remedial coursework.

These remedial programs come at a high cost. Even before Walz’s proposed expansion, students and their families spent $1.3 billion annually for remedial college education, adding to our exploding student debt problem. Indirect costs, including lost years in the workforce and lost productivity, compound the financial drag on our students and our economy.

Beyond the financial burdens, the costs of failure also are extensive. Only half of the students enrolling in a remedial college program will complete a credit-bearing course. Far fewer will graduate. At two-year schools, it’s reported that only 15 percent of students who start with remedial coursework will graduate.

Given our current failures, why should we create more remedial programs to encourage more unprepared students to enter college?

The customary, but misleading, answer is that college pays for itself. The oft-repeated statistic is that college graduates earn on average $32,000 more per year than high school graduates. Over a lifetime, this can result in a $1 million college premium. If these statistics are true for everyone, then every high school graduate should be encouraged to attend college.

But they are not. These statistics are a comparison of two very different groups, with virtually every student who excels academically on one side — the college graduate side. Finding that academic high-achievers have higher earnings should not surprise anyone, but it does not mean that a remedial math student enrolling in college will become a high-income actuary. Nor will the lack of a college degree hamper the lifetime earnings of a Mark Zuckerberg (American computer programmer and Internet entrepreneur and a co-founder of Facebook). It is the interests and talent of the individual student that will determine if a college degree increases his or her lifetime earnings.


*Howard Root is the recently retired CEO of Vascular Solutions, Inc.


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