U.S. Rep. Tim Walz late last month introduced the Remedial Education Improvement Act, a bill to provide grants to colleges and universities to create and expand remedial education programs. This legislation is designed to address the serious and growing problem of millions of students enrolling in college without the skills necessary to study a college curriculum.
Undoubtedly, deficiencies in high school instruction have partly caused this problem. But a more significant cause is the push for every high school graduate to enroll in college. The answer to this problem, then, is not to create additional remedial programs in colleges. Instead, we need to remove the stigma attached to students who choose to pursue college alternatives.
Technical schools, apprenticeship programs and the military all may better fit the abilities and interests of the student, especially a student at an academic disadvantage. Those alternatives to college, however, are often incorrectly viewed by society as second-tier and a poor economic decision.
Unprepared students enrolling in college is a massive problem. As Walz points out, one-third of all students enrolling in college are academically unprepared. To address this deficiency, 29 percent of students in public four-year colleges and 51 percent of students in public two-year colleges currently take remedial coursework.
These remedial programs come at a high cost. Even before Walz’s proposed expansion, students and their families spent $1.3 billion annually for remedial college education, adding to our exploding student debt problem. Indirect costs, including lost years in the workforce and lost productivity, compound the financial drag on our students and our economy.
Beyond the financial burdens, the costs of failure also are extensive. Only half of the students enrolling in a remedial college program will complete a credit-bearing course. Far fewer will graduate. At two-year schools, it’s reported that only 15 percent of students who start with remedial coursework will graduate.
Given our current failures, why should we create more remedial programs to encourage more unprepared students to enter college?
The customary, but misleading, answer is that college pays for itself. The oft-repeated statistic is that college graduates earn on average $32,000 more per year than high school graduates. Over a lifetime, this can result in a $1 million college premium. If these statistics are true for everyone, then every high school graduate should be encouraged to attend college.
But they are not. These statistics are a comparison of two very different groups, with virtually every student who excels academically on one side — the college graduate side. Finding that academic high-achievers have higher earnings should not surprise anyone, but it does not mean that a remedial math student enrolling in college will become a high-income actuary. Nor will the lack of a college degree hamper the lifetime earnings of a Mark Zuckerberg. It is the interests and talent of the individual student that will determine if a college degree increases his or her lifetime earnings.
College can provide an earnings premium only if the student graduates and can find a job that requires a college degree. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 69 percent of high school graduates enroll in college, but only 27 percent of existing jobs and jobs projected to be created through 2022 require a college degree. As a result, according to the Federal Reserve, 44 percent of college graduates are underemployed and 16 percent of minimum wage workers have a college degree. Students taking remedial education undoubtedly fall more often on the failure side of these statistics, assuming they even make it to graduation. The result is that many current remedial education students exit college with six-figure debt and only a pipe dream of getting a job in their chosen field.
Instead of promoting pipe dreams, we should be encouraging pipe fitters. Technical instruction is often a much better choice for students who do not excel in high school. Dunwoody College of Technology reports a 99 percent placement rate for its graduates, with top-level auto technicians earning up to $100,000 a year. Plumbers, electricians and surgical technicians are all excellent technical employment options with increasing demand, low unemployment and growing salaries. The military also can provide both a job and training. These college alternatives benefit our economy, which requires far more technical workers to continue to grow.
I saw this mismatch at Vascular Solutions, the medical device company I started and ran for 20 years. We consistently had unfilled job openings for nondegreed technicians in machine design at salaries well above $50,000. On the other hand, in our entry-level marketing associate program, we received at least 50 applications from recent college graduates for every position we hired.
Despite this mismatch, society continues to exhibit a bias toward college as a superior choice for all students. This societal judgment inappropriately stigmatizes the “useful arts” such as machining and welding simply because the workers use their hands as well as their minds in their work. In turn, this stigma discourages students (and their parents) from exploring alternative training avenues for the many technical jobs that are in high demand and may best fit the student’s interests.
Walz’s proposed legislation to expand remedial education programs is a disservice to both our students and our economy. As Mike Rowe of the TV show “Dirty Jobs” said, “We are lending money we don’t have to kids who can’t pay it back to train them for jobs that no longer exist.” Instead of spending more taxpayer money on remedial college education, we should instead focus on removing the stigma society places on college alternatives.
Howard Root is the recently retired CEO of Vascular Solutions, Inc. and the author of “Cardiac Arrest: Five Heart-Stopping Years as a CEO on the Feds’ Hit-List.”