The expense of remedial courses, which typically cost students the same as regular classes but don't fulfill degree requirements, runs about $3 billion annually, according to new research by Complete College America, a Washington-based national nonprofit working to increase the number of students with college degrees.
The group says the classes are largely failing the nation's higher education system at a time when student-loan debt has become a presidential campaign issue. Meanwhile, lawmakers in at least two states have pushed through changes and numerous institutions are redesigning the courses.
"Simply putting (students) in three levels of remedial math is really taking their money and time with no hope of success," said Stan Jones, president of Complete College America.
The group's research indicates that 1 in 10 remedial students graduate from community colleges within three years and a little more than one-third complete bachelor's degrees in six years. Yet the classes are widespread, with more than 50 percent of students entering two-year colleges and nearly 20 percent of those entering four-year universities put in at least one remedial course, the report said.
"At the end of the day, if we could say that we are getting more students to graduate, particularly those coming into college without the requisite skills, the investment we have now is worth it," said Bruce Vandal, director of postsecondary education for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, a nonpartisan group that researches education policy. "I think the fact that we aren't getting that result is why legislators and policymakers are up in arms, and rightfully so."
The research comes as the cost of a college education continues to grow. The College Board said last fall that the average in-state tuition and fees at four-year public colleges rose an additional $631, or about 8 percent, compared with a year ago.
The annual cost of a full credit load has passed $8,000 - an all-time high.
The Complete College America report says research shows half or more of remedial students would be better off being placed in required classes and having the schools build in extra help, such as tutors or more frequent class meetings.
The report said institutions that have used those approaches have seen their unprepared students succeed at the same rates as their college-ready peers.