Remediating America: On the Consultations of FSG

Peter Wood

President Obama and most of the higher-education establishment is in full cry for a large expansion in the number of students who attend and who complete college. We are told this is a priority because it would be good for the nation’s economy and good for the students. Be that as it may, there would be other beneficiaries of such an expansion. A recent report inadvertently highlights this. It offers an answer of sorts to “Who benefits?”

In February, FSG, “a nonprofit consulting firm specializing in strategy, evaluation, and research,” issued a report about the need for community colleges to outsource services such as data analysis, planning for organization change, faculty and staff development, and “readiness assessment services, psychosocial supports for students, counseling, mentoring, and tutoring.”

The 32-page report, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is not exactly an attention grabber. A Market for Success: How a Robust Service Provider Market Can Help Community Colleges Improve Student Completion by Jeff Kutash, Kate Tallant, Matt Wilka, and Kevin Connell, might be likened to one of those “cold seeps” in the ocean floor, where hydrocarbons ooze out into the water and give sustenance to a little ecosystem of its own. The idea in this case is that community colleges might graduate even greater numbers of students if “multiple stakeholders” joined to build a “services market.”


I have been arguing for several years that the United States is significantly over-supplied with higher education. The evidence for oversupply is abundant. A small number of “highly selective colleges”—about fifty in all—turn away a significant number of applicants. Yale had 26,000 applicants for its 2013 class of 1,951 students. A few hundred other colleges maintain milder forms of selectivity, not always academic in character. The University of Texas is at the center of a case now before the U.S. Supreme Court in which Abigail Fisher, a student who was refused admission, has charged that the university’s “selection” by race is illegal.

But most American colleges and universities not only admit virtually all who apply but aggressively recruit among those who aren’t interested and often not even minimally qualified.

Once admitted, a large percentage of these students are channeled into remedial programs. Across the country, “at least a third of university students” take at least one remedial course. In Ohio’s public universities, 41 percent of college freshman take at least one remedial course. In the California State University system, the figure is 57 percent, and in California Community Colleges, it is about 85 percent. In order to retain those who have passed from remedial ed to an actual college curriculum, we have countenanced a general lowering of academic standards and grade inflation. At least a third of the graduates of four-year colleges demonstrably have learned next to nothing over their undergraduate careers. And drop-out rates for both two-year and four-year programs are substantial.

There is more complex evidence for over-supply as well. Richard Vedder and his colleagues at the Center for College Affordability and Productivity have traced the phenomenon of college graduates displacing nongraduates in occupations which don’t require (or even benefit from) a college education. We also have credential inflation in many fields, in which employers can insist on a bachelor’s degree, where once a high-school diploma sufficed, or a master’s degree where a generation past a B.A. would have been enough.

The oversupply, however, has some self-sustaining dynamics. Getting a college education is like an arms race. Though the race devours precious time and resources and may produce little or no net gain, many players judge it too dangerous to opt out. Steve Jobs or Bill Gates may forego a college degree and still succeed, but the more typical destination of a college “noncompleter” is lifelong disadvantage in the competition for better jobs and promotions. This belief in the value of the college credential is not irrational from the individual’s point of view, but its rationality is of the game theory sort. The degree itself may be of marginal value as a measure of actual learning, but not having one exposes the individual to too much risk.

Community Colleges

Community colleges play several roles in this game. They offer the least-expensive option for “academic” post-secondary education; they offer the most abundant form of post-secondary education (there are over 1,200 of them) that mixes some actual academic preparation with vocational training. They provide a lower-cost on-ramp to four-year degree programs than attending freshman and sophomore years at four-year institutions. And they accommodate students who have low levels of academic talent or ambition or both.

Under the circumstances, one might expect community colleges to have high enrollments and low completion rates. Start with a large number of students who, on average, have low levels of talent, preparation, and commitment, and it seems almost inevitable that many will fall by the wayside. How many? According to A Market for Success, some sixty percent of community college students have neither graduated or transferred to a four-year institution within three years.

The new Gates Foundation-funded report picks up at this point. In the view of the authors, Kutash, Tallant, Wilka, and Connell, the attrition rate is self-evidently a problem. America needs more skilled workers. The low community college graduation rate “hinders our nation’s economic growth and shuts off opportunity for people to enter the best and fastest-growing job sectors.”

How Much is Enough?

These are, as I have shown elsewhere, very doubtful propositions. A nation’s economic growth certainly depends on the productivity of its people, but productivity and national prosperity have a limited relationship to higher-education attainment. Some countries with relatively low post-secondary degree attainment rates (e.g. Germany, Switzerland) have very high rates of productivity and prosperity. Some countries with high college degree attainment rates (e.g. Russia) have low productivity and less prosperity. What a nation needs to thrive economically is not necessarily a population where college degrees are commonplace, but a hard-working, ingenious, and versatile workforce. That would necessarily include a substantial number of college-educated people and people with advanced degrees. But we shouldn’t confuse mere diplomas with talent, or we shouldn’t imagine that the benefits that accrued from having 20 percent of the adult population with a college degree will be the same when—as is now the case—41 percent of Americans aged 25-64 have college degrees. Or that even these diminished advantages can be sustained when sixty percent of Americans have college degrees.

Those benefits will evaporate because to get to the higher percentages, college will necessarily have to conform itself to the abilities of a lot of students who aren’t very bright or ambitious. And the marketplace for “college educated” individuals will be flooded with graduates whose credentials are sketchy.

We may avoid this fate simply because before the disaster fully unfolds, a lot of Americans will probably avail themselves of alternatives, such as testing out of college. But in the meantime, the higher-education establishment remains almost ferociously determined to pump up the college retention and completion rates. A Market for Success is a testament to that tunnel vision. It declares, “More is needed to dramatically increase student completion.”

Cui Bono?

I said the report could be compared to a deep ocean seep, but its details are actually dry. The “most needed” areas for “external service providers” according to the report are:

  1. Long-term planning for ways to redesign institutions to drive completion
  2. Use of data to improve results
  3. Student services and structures (particularly developmental education) that support completion
  4. Faculty development to improve the quality of classroom instruction 

Let me translate: the FSG consultants have wrestled the noncompletion problem to the ground. What is needed is more consultants! (And, in case you are wondering, “developmental education” is the newest euphemism for remedial instruction.)

Community colleges don’t have the funds or expertise to do all this longterm planning, data-crunching, and super-duper services for sub-sub-marginal students, but if the colleges come together and create “aggregate demand” and “pools of funding,” new “service providers” (i.e. consultants) will rise up and come forward. Of course, relying on the market will take time, and the “long term” is simply not soon enough. To bridge the gaps, “colleges need immediate funding to support specific services around strategic planning, data use, student services…”

Where might this extra money come from? Could it be one of the ways in which community colleges could spend the $8-billion windfall that President Obama announced in a speech on February 13 at Northern Virginia Community College that he plans to spend on community colleges? Maybe not. That money is slated for a “Community College to Career Fund” and is supposed to focus on community colleges linking to businesses. But let’s say the idea is in the air that the Obama administration likes to spend money on community colleges. Back in July 2009, he announced another initiative to spend $12-billion over ten years to help community colleges to expand training and counseling, track students, and improve degree-completion rates.

A Market for Success is almost comically self-serving. But let’s be generous. Maybe FSG, and maybe the team of Kutash, Tallant, Wilka, and Connell don’t see themselves as the “service providers” they conjure up as the solution to improving community college completion rates. Maybe they are arguing the principle, not angling for contracts. But the principle doesn’t look very handsome in the light of day either. They have offered a recipe for driving up costs in the lowest-cost sector of higher education by layering on expensive overhead.

Post-Remedial Remediation

Whatever else we might do to improve community colleges, I doubt that we should be focusing our resources on remediation and to that far country “beyond remediation” where “many students need individualized counseling, mentoring, tutoring (on academics and college-level study skills), and other direct support services to better equip them to succeed in college.” This is not to say that such services lack merit. Experts in the field, such as Stan Jones, president of Complete College America, have been saying for some time that remedial classes have dismal results and that tutoring works better.

And that message seems to be sinking in. Various states, alarmed by both the high (and growing) percentage of college students remanded to remedial courses and the low rate at which students in these courses eventually earn degrees are reexamining their programs. The Colorado Commission on Higher Education issued a report in February noting the increases in their state, where 58.2 percent of community-college studentsare in remedial classes, and declaring that “improving remedial outcomes will require changes to instructional practices.” Colorado is also on board with the idea that “providing more extensive and integrated support services to students with remedial needs has potential as an effective developmental education tool.”

According to the Hartford Courant, Connecticut colleges may soon discontinue their remedial courses, which have been found to delay students from graduating.

The remedial idea of the moment is to hasten students to degree completion by mainstreaming them into regular classes with remediation on the side, sometimes in the form of “skills” classes, but often in the form of individualized assistance. There is also a not-too-subtle pressure to lower standards in four-year colleges to admit more under-qualified two-year college graduates and to ensure they don’t encounter the sort of academic challenges that might overwhelm them. That’s what is driving City University of New York’s controversial Pathways to Degree Completion, which I wrote about in “CUNY’s Pathway to Whatever.”

Tutoring our way to higher degree-completion rates or pursuing these other expedientsmakes sense only if higher degree-completion rates are a worthy goal. And despite the drum-beating from President Obama, the Gates Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Ford Foundation, the Lumina Foundation, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation—and most of the higher-education establishment—for an endless expansion of the percentage of Americans who hold college degrees, the case for such increases is extraordinarily weak.

I would not object if the wealthy parents of a not very perspicacious child lavished money on a whole squadron of tutors to help young Doug or Daphne to learn basic math and to be able to unspool a paragraph complete with nouns and verbs in some sensible order and a coherent idea. But it seems a bit much to devote public resources to such ventures after running the experiment from K-12 and coming up empty. Students who didn’t do well in high school may deserve another chance, or perhaps another chance beyond a second chance. Community colleges are good for that. But at some point, the exercise in doling out extra chances becomes more about the interests of the professional dolers than the needs of the recipients.

This article originally appeared on March 27, 2012 in the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog.

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