CSU experiment could hurt students

Students protest outside the California State University Office of the Chancellor as CSU trustees vote on a tuition increase in March 2017.
Students protest outside the California State University Office of the Chancellor as CSU trustees vote on a tuition increase in March 2017. Los Angeles Daily News via AP

Like it or not, California State University students are about to become guinea pigs in a grand educational experiment. Beginning this fall, CSUs will stop giving placement tests or offering remedial classes, and instead will place all students in regular classes to sink or swim.


The hope is to improve student success – and save money. Nationally, about half of students entering two-year colleges and 20 percent of those entering four-year universities take remedial courses in math, reading or writing, falling farther behind their peers and becoming less likely to complete their degrees. Studies peg the cost of remediation at between $3 billion to $7 billion a year.

The result has been a hue and cry to do something. Many states have cut costs by eliminating remedial classes, while several others have reformed them.

Then there’s California, with the largest public college system in the country. About a quarter of CSU’s first-year students pay $205 million out-of-pocket to take remedial courses, yet only 19 percent of full-time CSU students graduate within four years. This is why California decided to emulate Florida and eliminate remedial coursework.

But the move evades an important question: Why didn’t CSU’s remediation program work?

The efforts began in 2004, when the CSU system sent 11th-graders a letter over the summer imploring them to “do something!” during their senior year. When vague directives to mostly first-generation students didn’t work, CSU let each campus developed its own pre-college summer tune-up courses. That hodgepodge scheme, unsurprisingly, didn’t succeed.

The main problem is that CSU is failing to address the wide range of skills and educational experiences of our increasingly diverse students. Early research from Florida, as well as a pilot program at Cal State Dominguez Hills, indicates that some remedial students may benefit from compressed classes that focus on a limited number of academic skills. Other students, however, need considerable time to not only learn math and writing skills, but also develop digital literacy, college course management and critical thinking.

These are the skills likely to be shortchanged in the rush to improve retention and graduation statistics in the CSU system. Faculty – many of whom have pointed out that one year of lead time isn’t enough to make such comprehensive changes – will be under pressure to demonstrate results under the new system.

Courses might be adjusted to accommodate students, but dumbing down coursework kicks the remedial can down the road at a time when employers are already dissatisfied with the math, reading, and writing abilities of new workers.

If a remediation program doesn’t work, it should be eliminated. But removing a program that is ineffective doesn’t resolve the problem. We need to start innovating new solutions that address the diverse needs of our CSU students. Otherwise, this current effort will become just one more failed attempt at educational reform.

William G. Tierney is co-director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California and can be contacted at Michael Lanford is a postdoctoral scholar at the Pullias Center and can be contacted at