The Future of Higher Education Should Focus on K-12

One issue we have not yet discussed in Preparing the Future Professoriate is K-12 education. You may be thinking, “of course we haven’t talked about K-12 much, Tanya. This is a course on higher education!” However, this is an area that deserves our attention. Our discussions have focused a lot around access to higher education being an issue. However, without first ensuring that students are ready for college-level courses, increasing access to higher education will just lead to further issues of low graduation rates and the production of adults with Bachelor’s degrees ill-prepared for the workforce.

The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education estimates that nearly 60% of 1st year college students are not adequately prepared for the demands of post secondary education. While the “readiness gap” is less at highly selective institutions, students attending less selective and open access institutions often need to take remedial courses before initiating their official degree-specific course work. Estimation of participation in remedial courses varies across surveys, but indicate that 28-40% of first year undergraduates enroll in at least 1 remedial course, and this number typically exceeds 50% when examining community colleges alone.

Readiness GapThe premise and rational for remedial courses is sound. Students who are not “ready” for college-level work will take courses designed to help them leap the chasm between their high-school/high-school equivalent training and freshmen-level introductory courses. However, in reality there are issues with this system that must be considered. First – remedial courses do not count towards official credits towards a students’ degree. This increases the cost of tuition and extends the time required to earn a degree. Second – racial and socioeconomic disparities exist. African American and lower-income students are more likely to be flagged for remedial courses than White students from wealthier families. This can lead to harmful stereotypes and assumptions regarding level of intelligence which could persist throughout a students’ educational career. Third – data indicate that remedial courses don’t work! Results compiled from Complete College America show that students in remedial courses are less likely to graduate than students who enter college without the need for these gateway courses.

Complete College America’s Remediation Report

Therefore, I strongly support changes to K-12 education which will increase the number of students who are prepared to enter college. However, I do recognize that changes to the college curriculum that will help students ‘catch up’ are also needed. While improving the college readiness of students will not be a simple and easy task, the U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, highlights a key factor: “It’s time to end the buck-passing and blame game, where college leaders blame high schools for sending ill-prepared students, where high school principals blame the elementary schools, where elementary school principals blame the preschool programs, and preschool teachers blame the parents.” [From the TIME Higher Education Summit]

Specific recommendations from Complete College America to change both K-12 and Higher Education systems to “close remediation exit ramps” are listed in detail in their report, Remediation: Higher Education’s Bridge to Nowhere. An overview is shared below:

Complete College America’s Remediation Report


How often do you find students in your courses unprepared for post-secondary classes?

Further Reading on this topic:



A PhD Student at Virginia Tech. This blog was created as a class requirement for Contemporary Pedagogy - Spring 2013. 

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