June 14, 2015

The High Price of Kentucky's Remedial Education

By Mariah Mowbray

As I worked myself into a frenzy this spring writing a string of never-ending essays for what seemed like every financial-aid scholarship in existence, I wondered if I would be able or ready to take on the burden of a loan.  I can only imagine what I’d be facing if I also needed to worry about paying for college classes that didn’t count toward my degree.

Yet that is exactly what thousands of Kentucky’s recently graduated seniors are facing. One of the greatest costs of a college degree is one you don’t hear so much about: remedial education. These are courses for which students must pay and take in order to graduate but for which they receive no academic credit. In Kentucky, nearly one third of students enrolled in the state’s college are also enrolled in one or more remedial course.

For many high school students, learning about the need for remedial education is a rude awakening.  “Morehead State says that I have to pay for and earn remedial credit before I’m allowed to start taking classes,” Haylee, an incredulous senior told us.  “It isn’t fair that I have to pay more for fake credits.” 

Dr. Rebecca Simms, Director of Secondary Partnerships at Bluegrass Community and Technical College, told me that among her students who struggle more than most to obtain a postsecondary degree, “60-70 percent need at least one remedial course.” That conforms with data from the MetLife Survey of the American Teacher which reports that high school teachers nationwide estimate that 37 percent of their graduating seniors will be inadequately prepared for college-level coursework and require remediation to get a college degree.

The case for continuing education after high school has never been stronger. According to the Kentucky Office of Employment and Training, by 2018, postsecondary education will be necessary for 29 percent of jobs and 48 percent of new jobs in Kentucky. And MIT economist David Autor estimates that not going to college will cost a person about $500,000 in lifetime earnings.


Facts like these are surely motivating for the many students who strive for a degree despite the daunting costs. But the additional burden of paying for low-level classes for no academic credit, often at the additional expense of not being able to work at a paying job—on top of crushing tuition costs—may be just too much.  Might the price of remediation help explain why the University of Kentucky is the only public college in the state with over 50% of students able to graduate within six years?

Fortunately, some places in Kentucky are actively exploring creative solutions to the crisis. 

Four Districts of Innovation—Jefferson, Taylor, Danville Independent and Eminence Independent—have begun to blur the lines between secondary and postsecondary education. Each of these districts has placed focus on mastery of content rather than placement by chronological age. Students receive their diploma when they’re truly prepared to continue on a path to college, all but eliminating the need for remedial courses. At Eminence Independent, Superintendent Buddy Barry explained that students can graduate with an associate degree, even if they’ve stayed an extra two years to complete it.

For students who don’t have access to such progressive districts, perhaps schools could offer a rewards program.  That way, if a student takes one or more remedial course and still graduates within six years, he or she could be refunded part or all of what was paid for the class.  However, this doesn’t truly correct what may be the essence of the remedial education problem:  high schools that graduate students who are simply not ready to make the postsecondary transition.

This op-ed originally ran as part of a package in the Courier Journal reflecting on the release of Uncovering the Tripwires to Postsecondary Success.

Mariah Mowbray

Mariah Mowbray

Mariah is a former member of KSVT. She graduated from Lafayette High School in 2015 and the University of Richmond in 2019.