The Costs of California’s “Promote Now, Pay Later” Plan

SACRAMENTO—Last month students across California graduated from high school eager to start college in the fall. 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 you think.

The failure to prepare a single cohort of freshmen for college-level work will cost them, their schools, and the state up to $14 billion annually.

In 1996, the California State University (CSU) trustees adopted a policy to reduce remediation to no more than 10 percent of incoming freshmen by 2007. Then in 1998 the state outlawed K–12 social promotion, requiring schools to retain any student performing below grade-level proficiency. But freshmen remediation rates at California community colleges and universities remain alarmingly high.

In the fall of 2007, only 44 percent of incoming CSU freshmen were proficient in both reading and math. In 2006, at least 30 percent of University of California (UC) freshmen, about 60 percent of CSU freshmen, and up to 90 percent of California Community College (CCC) freshmen needed remediation—more than 655,000 students in all.

Worse, empirical evidence spanning two decades reveals that around 41 percent of students who complete any remedial courses are unlikely to earn their degrees. That amounts to more than a quarter-million California college freshmen.

The cost of such poor preparation ranges from $4 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 (CST). In contrast, about seven out of 10 students pass the California High School Exit Examination (CAHSEE) 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 (EAP).

Such discrepancies between K–12 “proficiency” and “college-readiness” 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.

“I took a lot of AP [Advanced Placement] classes in high school, so I thought I was prepared,” one undergraduate told the San Diego Union-Tribune. She was distraught upon learning she would have to take remedial writing “because you think you’re doing well and find out you’re not up to the standard.”

California can no longer afford its “promote now, pay later” approach to academic preparation. For more than a decade, postsecondary institutions, which receive funding for remedial education and prevention programs, have been charged with evaluating their effectiveness. Yet the legislature has little information on that subject.

Likewise the California Department of Education does not report on remedial-education programs, and funding is embedded within more than 100 regular and categorical educational programs. Teachers also report being pressured to pass students along, prepared or not.

The current remedial situation is unacceptable, but there is a way policy makers can fix it. Funding for the current patchwork system should go 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 CST, 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, complete with timelines, measurable objectives, and costs. 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 implement such policies, legislators will find that an ounce of prevention today saves pounds of remediation-related costs tomorrow.

The High Price of Failure in California: How Inadequate Education Costs Schools, Students, and Society by PRI Education Studies Senior Policy Fellow Vicki E. Murray, Ph.D., will be released on July 22, 2008. See

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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