‘Pell Grants Shouldn’t Pay for Remedial College’

by Grace

Michael Petrilli argues that Pell Grants should not be used to pay for remedial college courses.

 … 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.

Current Pell Grant spending is wasteful.

About two-thirds of low-income community-college students — and one-third of poor students at four-year colleges — need remedial (aka “developmental”) education, according to Complete College America, a nonprofit group. But it’s not working: Less than 10 percent of students who start in remedial education graduate from community college within three years, and just 35 percent of remedial students earn a four-year degree within six years.

A proposed solution

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?

Possible positive effects:

  • More resources could go to ambitious students, giving them an incentive to work hard to prepare for college-level work.
  • K-12 schools would become more accountable if they knew their graduates would only received college assistance if they were ready for college.
  • Colleges would become more selective, rasing their standards of learning.
  • Pell Grant money could be focused on the most qualified students, improving their chances of graduation.

In sum, disqualifying the use of Pell grants for remedial education would substantially reduce the gap between the number of students entering higher education and the number completing degrees.

Possible negative effects:

Yes, there are obvious downsides. Most significantly, many students wouldn’t be able to afford remedial education and thus would never go to college in the first place. Millions of potential Pell recipients — many of them minorities — might be discouraged from even entering the higher-education pipeline. Such an outcome seems unfair and cuts against the American tradition of open access, as well as second and third chances.

Then again, it’s not so certain that these individuals are better off trying college in the first place. Most don’t make it to graduation….

Perhaps the greatest risk is that colleges would respond to the new rules in a perverse manner: by giving credit for courses that used to be considered “remedial.”  …  would further dilute the value of a college degree.

Petrilli suggests the potential upside is sufficiently compelling to warrant a pilot program that would limit Pell Grants only to students ready to do college-level work.  

Perhaps offer the deal to an entire state. Study what happens. My guess is that it would have a salutary effect on the K-12 system, on higher education and on college-completion rates. Let’s find out.


6 Comments to “‘Pell Grants Shouldn’t Pay for Remedial College’”

  1. Nope, what will actually happen is that the colleges will take the remedial label off the remedial courses and simply give credit for them. Many private colleges already do this. It will just result in watering down college degrees even more than they are currently.


  2. Petrilli does mention that possibility, but he thinks the risk is worth taking. One possible way to avoid this problem would be for the federal government and/or schools to require strict entrance exams before any financial aid is approved.


  3. CSProfMom is right. Since remedial education is needed and the students who need it can’t afford it, removing Pell grants from those students would cause the “remedial” courses to be renamed “college” courses. It has already happened with algebra in many community colleges.

    Also, if a student gets a bad education in high school, what is their alternative to remedial course work? How does making it even harder for poor people (those most likely to have gotten terrible high school educations) to succeed in college seem fair?


  4. Fair? Is it fair to have taxpayers pay for poor people to receive grants and loans even while their chances of graduating college are slim? Since the cost (both financial and other) of paying unprepared students to attend college are so high, I think it more fair to go with Petrilli’s suggestion.

    Petrilli and others argue that “warping the country’s K-12 system” is one cost of providing federal money to unprepared college students. It only helps to make K-12 schools less accountable for educating all students, especially low-income students. At the same time, it helps to dumb down higher education and lower graduation rates.


  5. I think it is completely fair for taxpayers to pay for poor people to get an education. It betters our lives in so many, many ways to not have a mass of uneducated, hopeless people living in poverty. I do have qualms about massively unprepared students being pushed into academic colleges and universities, though. It is hard, though, to know where to draw the line. I do see my students SAT scores and high school grades, so I have some inkling. Yes, the ones with really low math SATs tend to not succeed – but there are always exceptions. I had a student back at regional state u who had screwed up in high school and also done poorly on his SATs. He ended up with a PhD in computer science from one of the top programs in the country. He now works at Microsoft Research. Should he have not gotten his Pell grant? We need better predictive tools, but right now we don’t really have them.

    One of the countries most famous for the make-or-break exam that determines whether you go to university or not is China. Our stereotype is that China is this amazing meritocracy. But the truth is far uglier. Poor kids from the countryside, the kids of the migrant laborers who make up the bulk of the country, really do not have much shot at getting into the universities. Their schools are not great, and they can’t pay the fees for the extra tutoring that has become very popular in Chinese cities. Wealthy Chinese families can pay to send their kids who could not pass the exam over to the U.S. for college, while the poor families cannot do that. Income disparity is huge in China, and considered to be the biggest risk to the government. Many analysts believe that if the Chinese government can’t find a way to narrow this gap, the economic miracle will sputter and social chaos will bring down the government. I mention this because I am concerned that the U.S. is headed towards the Chinese situation rather than away. Even now, upper middle class and wealthy kids have an enormous advantage over poor kids in getting into universities, for the same reasons as in China., A society with large income disparities and little social mobility is hugely at risk, and not a direction I want to see us heading.


  6. “I think it is completely fair for taxpayers to pay for poor people to get an education. It betters our lives in so many, many ways to not have a mass of uneducated, hopeless people living in poverty.”

    I agree that it’s better for society not to have a large and growing underclass, but there’s a huge question whether Pell Grants are effective in curbing that problem. In fact, as Petrilli argues, they may exacerbate it.


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