A Student-Loan Solution We Should Be Talking About

Tuesday, Senate leaders said that they had reached a deal to freeze student-loan rates at 3.4 percent—rather than allowing them to double on July 1. It's welcome news for the millions of students in this country who rely on such subsidized loan rates to help pay for school. But the deal doesn't get at the overwhelming national problem of student debt, which, at more than $1 trillion, now exceeds credit-card debt in the country. 

Among the factors that contribute to those numbers is the problem of remedial coursework. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2007-2008, "approximately 36 percent of first-year undergraduate students reported that they had ever taken a remedial course." That spikes up to 42 percent among undergraduates at two-year institutions. In some states, the proportion of students needing those courses can be dramatically higher; in Colorado's community colleges, the remediation rate was 58 percent this year. 

That means students are taking extra classes to get to the college level. Most of the time, the classes don't count toward graduation, but they still cost money. Those entitled to grant dollars must often use those funds to simply get their remediation courses completed—by the time students get to the actual college-level stuff, they're having to take out loans. The problem is particularly acute among low-income students and those of color. 

According to Complete College America, a nonprofit focused on raising the number of Americans with degrees, the remedial courses cost states and students a stunning $3 billion. Perhaps even more troubling, most remedial students never graduate. That means the money spent, both in subsidized loans or grants and from the student, has no investment return.

In a feature for our latest poverty issue, I highlighted Capital Idea, a program in Austin, Texas, that specializes in getting working poor adults into living-wage jobs, largely through community-college degrees. The program would accept students with as low as a fifth-grade reading and math level. By testing to make sure students are put in the right courses—and then providing support like extensive tutoring—the program has an impressive success rate. 

"Weed-out classes are a waste of money, resources and time," says Capital Idea's executive director, Steve Jackobs. "When we put you into these classes, we're going to do it with the probability of success. So we're going to do it with screening up front so we don't put you in a class where you're going to drown."

The approach means students don't get demoralized and are more likely to stick with school. It also makes economic sense. "You save the money by having them only do it once," he explains. "You could invest the money up front in the things you need to do to support the student." 

Complete College is a loud proponent of this approach. Just last week, ten states received major grants from Complete College America. Colorado is using its $1 million to improve remedial education. The nonprofit pushes for reforms much like those Capital Idea uses to keep people focused. For instance, Complete College advocates for better math testing, so that students wind up in a class where they can succeed. It also pushes colleges to allow students to take college-level and remedial classes concurrently. The program also advocates a change to intro courses—so-called "gateway classes"—which many beginning students struggle to pass. Providing support through tutorials, and co-requisite courses to support them, helps students get through those classes the first time around. Rather than relying on remedial courses, the nonprofit has argued for giving students extra support while they begin at the college level.

Affordable college loans are essential to helping people access higher education. But reform on issues like remedial courses could help decrease the overall cost—while helping more people actually complete their degrees.


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