Last month, Californians were stunned to learn that around one in four high school students drops out, almost twice as many as the state previously reported. In districts like Grant Joint Union High, more than one in three dropout.
Yet even when students stay in school, the question is how many will wind up in remedial classes repeating work they should have already mastered? The numbers – and the price tag – are probably a lot more than Californians think.
In the fall of 2007, only 44 percent of CSU freshmen were proficient in both reading and math. In 2006, at least 30 percent of University of California system freshmen, about 60 percent of CSU freshmen and up to 90 percent of California Community College freshmen needed remediation—more than 655,000 students in all.
The cost of such poor preparation ranges from $4 billion to $14 billion annually, depending upon whether freshmen in remedial coursework ultimately forgo two- or four-year degrees. Those estimates encompass estimated direct costs of remediation to colleges and universities ($274 million). Students and society, including California businesses, pay the lion’s share of poor academic preparation in the form of lost individual earnings (up to $5.5 billion annually) and related annual social costs such as lowered tax receipts and higher health care, crime, and social welfare costs, all associated with lower educational attainment (as much as $8.4 billion, including $447 million in remediation costs to businesses).
Those annual projections are conservative because they include only first-time, full-time freshmen and assume students take and pass only one remedial course each in a given year. But the real remediation problem starts long before students enter college.
On average, only four out of 10 students achieve grade-level proficiency or higher in English language arts on the California Standards Test. In contrast, about seven out of 10 students pass the California High School Exit Examination in English language arts on their first try as sophomores, while barely two out of 10 high school juniors are deemed college-ready in this core subject according to the CSU’s Early Assessment Program.
Such discrepancies between K-12 “proficiency” and “college-readiness,” two-year or four-year, contribute to California’s high remediation rates because students are led to believe they are on track for college-level work, when in fact they are more likely to be heading for remedial classes.
California can no longer afford its “promote now, pay later” approach to academic preparation. One solution is redirecting funding the current patchwork system of programs and interventions directly to students in the form of grants, which they could use at any qualified provider. Elementary or secondary students scoring below grade-level proficiency on the California Standards Test, and undergraduates deemed unprepared by their postsecondary institutions would be eligible.
Parents or undergraduates would work with their chosen providers to develop customized education plans, and all parties would sign performance contracts making them responsible for repaying their portion of the grants if they do not honor the terms. Annual program surveys and independent evaluations would be mandatory and publicly reported.
If they choose to implement such policies, legislators will find that an ounce of prevention today saves pounds of dropout and remediation-related costs tomorrow. That will be good for students, educators, and taxpayers alike.
“The High Price of Failure in California: How Inadequate Education Costs Schools, Students and Society” by Pacific Research Institute Education Studies Senior Policy Fellow Vicki E. Murray, Ph.D. is available online at www.pacificresearch.org.