Using Pell Grants to Pay for Remedial Courses

Published oct. 15, 2013

Fordham Institute Executive VP Michael Petrilli last week wrote an op-ed for Bloomberg View decrying the use of Pell Grants to pay for the remedial education courses needed by many students in preparation for taking community college classes:

A huge proportion of this $40 billion annual federal investment is flowing to people who simply aren’t prepared to do college-level work. And this is perverting higher education’s mission, suppressing completion rates and warping the country’s K-12 system. What if the government decreed that three years hence, students would only be eligible for Pell aid if enrolled in credit-bearing college courses, thus disqualifying remedial education for support?

Petrelli is right to be concerned about the high number of students using up valuable Pell dollars in developmental courses, but the solution is not to eliminate access to Pell for students who are not college ready. Without Pell, these students would have few viable options for attaining the postsecondary credentials that research shows to be increasingly essential for obtaining living wage employment. And despite the assertion that the 30% of jobs requiring a high school diploma or less should be sufficient to keep young adults "out of the grip of poverty," the fact is that many of these jobs fail to provide a family-supporting wage or opportunities for advancement.

Petrelli also focuses his arguments on students coming out of high school, and places the responsibility of preparing students for college on the K-12 system:

To be considered successful, the high schools serving these young people would need to get their college-bound students to a college-ready level, not just get them to graduation. They might offer more college-prep courses, especially for those pupils with the most promise, and make sure the teachers are up to the task.

However, this ignores the fact that a large number of community college students are older and returning to school to advance their careers. These adults often test into remedial courses simply because they have been out of school for a number of years and need to brush up math and English skills before entering college-level courses. Given the incomes of most of these students, they would not be able to pay for those classes out-of-pocket.

Rather than penalize students who test into remedial courses, we need to focus our efforts instead on ways to make these courses work better for students so that more of them can successfully meet their higher education attainment goals. Several current JFF initiatives are showing real promise in accelerating low-skilled college students of all ages into credit-bearing courses more quickly and at higher rates (see the Postsecondary State Policy Network and Accelerating Opportunity).

Across the country we are seeing states and colleges investing in strategies to reduce the amount of time students spend in developmental education and to make those classes more relevant to students' goals by integrating them with career pathway programs. Eliminating Pell for remedial courses would be a disincentive to pursuing these innovative approaches. We need to continue finding ways to help underprepared students succeed in higher education, not dissuade them from attending altogether.