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Community colleges enroll more than one-third of all postsecondary students in the United States, providing access to higher education for over 7 million students each year.[1]  Because these institutions charge considerably less in tuition and fees than public and private 4-year colleges, community colleges attract a significant number of students from low-income households.[2] But despite their best intentions, many of these students will drop out before graduation day.

Although there are many reasons students fail to complete their degree, one important reason is that many community college entrants are unprepared for college-level academics. As a result, most community colleges offer remedial (developmental) courses aimed at bringing these students up to speed in core subjects. Depending on the institution, entering students are strongly encouraged, if not required, to take one or more of these non-credit bearing math, reading, and writing courses if they score below certain levels on national college admissions tests or on placement exams. The latest data indicates that 68% of community college students and 40% of students at open-access four-year colleges take at least one remedial course.[3]  Within the City University of New York (CUNY) community college system, 82% of entering students placed into at least one remedial course between 2004 and 2008: 64% placed into remedial math, 56% into writing, and 24% into reading.[4]

Across the United States, the majority of students will not complete their assigned remedial course sequence. In one study, 46% of students completed their recommended reading sequence, and a mere 33% completed their math sequence. Moreover, the further behind a student is, the less likely he or she is to complete a sequence.[5] Although some of these students fail their coursework and return for a second or third attempt, a considerable number drop out and never return. Consequently, community college degree completion rates are low nationwide—only 28% of U.S. students enrolled in remedial courses earn a degree or certificate within 8.5 years of their initial enrollment.[6] At CUNY, 26% of students enrolled in remedial classes graduate within 6 years, compared to 40% of students not enrolled in remedial coursework.[7]

There is considerable disagreement as to the benefits of remedial education. Some researchers contend that remedial education offers students an opportunity to build skills, instead of struggle through courses beyond their current abilities.[8] Other researchers, however, have found that remedial coursework renders few long-term benefits and might in fact have a negative impact on student persistence and degree completion rates.[9]

Regardless, the low degree completion rates of students who place into remedial classes suggest a pressing need for innovation. Post-secondary institutions and other key players have begun testing new strategies to help underprepared college entrants graduate. A report by Rutschow and Schneider (2011) divides these efforts into four main categories: (1) strategies to prevent the need for remedial coursework, (2) strategies to hasten students’ progression through remedial courses, (3) programs that offer supports such as tutoring and advising, and (4) programs that connect remedial coursework to other course content or to students’ person­al goals.[10] Two specific examples of notable programs include CUNY’s Accelerated Student in Associate Programs (ASAP) and Learning Communities.[11][12]



[1] U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2013). Table 303.55: Total fall enrollment in degree-granting postsecondary institutions, by control and level of institution, attendance status, and age of student: 2011. In U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics (Ed.), Digest of Education Statistics (2009 ed.). Retrieved from

[2] Provasnik, S., & Planty, M. (2008). Community Colleges: Special Supplement to The Condition of Education 2008 (Statistical Analysis Report). Retrieved from

[3] Jaggars, S., & Stacey, W. (2014). What We Know About Developmental Education Outcomes. Retrieved from

[4] Jaggars, S., & Hodara, M. (2011). The opposing forces that shape developmental education: assessment, placement, and progression at CUNY community colleges. (CCRC Working Paper). New York, NY: Community College Research Center. Retrieved from

[5] Bailey, T., Jeong, D., & Cho, S. (2010). Student Progression through Developmental Sequences in Community Colleges (CCRC Brief). New York, NY: Community College Research Center.

[6] Attewell, P., Lavin, D., Domina, T., & Levey, T. (2006). New evidence on college remediation. The Journal of Higher Education, 77(5), 886-924. Retrieved from

[7] CUNY Office of Academic Affairs. (2011). Proposals to Improve Success Rates For Students in Developmental Education at CUNY. Retrieved from

[8] Lazarick, L. (1997). Back to Basics: Remedial Education. Community College Journal, 68(2), 10-15. Retrieved from

[9] Martorell, P., & McFarlin, I. (2011). Help or hindrance? The effects of college remediation on academic and labor market outcomes. The Review of Economics and Statistics, 93(2), 436-454.

[10] Rutschow, E., & Schneider, E. (2011). Unlocking the gate: What we know about improving developmental education. New York, NY: MDRC.

[11] Scrivener, S. & Weiss, M. (2013). More Graduates: Two-Year Results from an Evaluation of Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) for Developmental Education Students. Retrieved from:

[12] Visher, M., Weiss, M., Weissman, E., Rudd, Y., & Wathington, H. (2011). The Effects of Learning Communities for Students in Developmental Education: A Synthesis of Findings from Six Community Colleges. Retrieved from



For more information on the behavioral components of low graduation rates among students enrolled in remedial courses, as well as potential solutions to this challenge, see the Robin Hood Prize Behavioral Brief.

Exploring remedial education and the City University of New York (CUNY) community college system


Community College Research Center
Developmental Education and Adult Basic Skills

Heather Hollingsworth/Yahoo News (2012)
Experts: Remedial college classes need fixing      

Ann Hulbert/ The Atlantic (2013)
How to Escape the Community-College Trap       

The Joyce Foundation
Joyce Announces College Pipeline Commitment at The White House   

Sophie Quinton/ The Atlantic (2013)
The Technology That Could Help More Community College Students Graduate         

Elizabeth Zachry Rutschow and Emily Schneider/ MDRC (2011)
Unlocking the gate: What we know about improving developmental education          


Remediation and Completion Programs at CUNY:

Accelerated Study In Associate Programs (ASAP)

CUNY Start
Fall 2013 CUNY Start Study

Remedial Needs Data from CUNY