How to Help Your High School Student Work Now to Avoid College Remedial Courses

Is your student college ready?  The answer may not be what you think.  If your student has done reasonably well in high school and has high school diploma in hand, you may assume that your student is now ready for college.  Unfortunately, in most cases this may not be true.

According to a recent study conducted by the National Center for Public Policy in Higher Education, an independent, non-profit, non-partisan organization, ”Every year in the United States, nearly 60% of first-year college students discover that, despite being fully eligible to attend college, they are not ready for postsecondary studies. After enrolling, these students learn that they must take remedial courses in English or mathematics, which do not earn college credits.”  Even those students enrolled in a college preparatory curriculum may not be as ready as they should be.

According to another report, released by Achieve, Inc., students who require remedial courses in college graduate at half of the rate of their college ready peers.  Many students who do graduate need extra time to complete their degree.


This is not encouraging news.

Rather than seeing this information as a dooming fate, however, parents and students need to consider what they can do, individually, to combat the disconnect between high school and college preparedness.  Yes, schools and states need to address this problem.  But rather than simply wait for solutions more broadly, parents and students, armed with this knowledge, can help improve students’ need for remedial courses.

What do we mean by remedial courses?

Remedial courses, sometimes call developmental courses, are classes that students must take to build skills — most often in reading, English and math — before they are allowed to take regular college classes.  These courses are designed to improve skills, fill in gaps, or help students gain proficiency in these subjects.  In effect, they help a student ”catch up.”  Some students may be required to take remedial courses in a single area or several areas.

According to the report Complete College America, more than 80% of schools restrict student enrollment in some courses until they complete needed remedial courses.  Obviously, this can slow a student’s progress toward graduation.

At most schools, remedial courses do not count toward graduation.  So students will be required to take these courses, and pay tuition, prior to taking the courses that lead to their degree.  Some schools do give non-degree credit for these courses which count toward full-time student status.  This is important for financial aid, residency and athletics.

How are students placed in remedial courses?

Individual colleges set their own policies to determine who is placed in developmental courses.  Some schools use standardized exam scores such as ACT or SAT.  Some schools use standard placement exams or may create their own exams.  Students take these placement exams after they have been accepted, so they are not a factor in admission.  They are used to determine how ready the student is for college level work in various areas.

Often students do not realize that they will need to take placement exams and/or do not take them seriously.  They may not realize that, unlike many standardized tests, they can prepare for these placement exams

How can my student avoid being required to take remedial classes?

Short of changing your student’s high school curriculum to better prepare them for college level work, is there anything that your student can do to reduce the chances that they will be required to take these courses?  We believe the answer is yes.

As a parent, you can begin by sharing this important information with your student.  Help them understand that the assumption that simply taking the right courses and earning the right grades means that they will be ready. Seat time in high school is not enough.

So what can your student do?  Simply put — your student needs to take charge of their own education and learning.  Encourage them to be in the driver’s seat rather than the passenger seat.

  • Know that preparing for college is an active task. Simply passing high school classes and earning a diploma is not enough.  Your student will need to do more.
  • Take the work in high school seriously. Do more than go through the motions.  Remember that there is a purpose in learning high school material.
  • Address your deficiencies, don’t avoid them. Most students know the areas in which their skills are weak.  Often, they try to avoid or circumvent those areas.  Encourage your student to determine their areas of weakness and work on them.  Get tutoring if necessary. Improve skills.
  • Take challenging classes. Encourage your student to work with their guidance counselor to sign up for the most difficult classes that they can.  Ask your student to embrace challenge as much as possible.
  • Take math in senior year. Many students complete their required math courses by junior year of high school and are pleased not to ”have to take math” during their final year.  However, this means that your student may forget much of what they know before taking college placement exams.  Encourage your student to continue with a math class in senior year.
  • Don’t slack during senior year. Math is not the only area in which many students ease up during senior year. Students look forward to an easier year during their senior year and are subject to senioritis.  Encourage your student to continue to take challenging courses and to continue to work hard to maintain skills as well as grades.
  • Try a college class. If your student has access to a local community college, encourage them to register for a college class.  Even if these credits will not be accepted (and they might) toward college graduation, this will give your student an opportunity to test out both college expectations and their own skills.  Your student may discover the areas in which there are gaps.
  • Take placement exams seriously. Know they are coming. Prepare for them. Review.  Ask whether practice exams are available. Hire a tutor to help prepare.  Make these exams your very best work.
  • If you do not do well on a placement exam, ask whether a retest is possible.  Use the summer to take a class or work with a tutor to prepare (this will cost less than a semester’s tuition).

In spite of using all of the above suggestions, some students will simply need to take remedial courses.  It may not be possible for your student to catch up from years of difficulty.  If it is determined that your student needs remedial work, encourage them to work hard to master the skills and not to lose motivation.  Your student’s journey may require some extra time, but they will gain important skills that will last a lifetime.

Related Posts:

Why Is My Student In Developmental Courses?

The Problem With College Placement Exams

Dual Registration May Give High School Students a Head Start on College

Reasons Why Your College Student Might Not Graduate in Four Years

If your student is in high school, check out our e- 60 Practical Tips for Using the High School Years to Prepare for College Success. This guide is not about getting in to college. It is about how to work now to help your student succeed once they get to college. Open the door and get the conversations started!

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2 thoughts on “How to Help Your High School Student Work Now to Avoid College Remedial Courses”

  1. John,

    You are absolutely right. If students find that they know the material but always do poorly on tests, they may need to seek help. They might investigate whether they qualify for accommodations such as extended test time. They might seek help from a counselor to learn calming strategies. They might work to learn test taking strategies that will help them improve their score and feel less anxious. The important thing is for students to feel that they have some control.

    Thanks for raising this issue.

  2. Great tips in your post. I’d like to add that, especially in the case of exams, being able to study effectively and the ability to stay calm on tests is very important. Test anxiety is a wide spread, yet often overlooked, challenge,


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