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Column: Pell Grants Shouldn’t Pay for Remedial College Courses

Everyone, from President Barack Obama to Rep. Paul Ryan to Bill Gates, seems to have an idea for improving the federal Pell Grant program for higher education.

Worthy though some of these efforts may be, none reveals the crux of the problem: 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.

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.

What if the government decreed that three years hence, students would be eligible for Pell aid only if enrolled in credit-bearing college courses, thus disqualifying remedial education for support?

One could foresee various possible outcomes. Let’s start with the positive. Ambitious, low-income high-school students would know that if they want to attend college at public expense (probably their only option), they would first need to become “college-ready.” This would provide a clear sign and incentives for them to work hard, take college-prep classes and raise their reading and math skills to the appropriate level.

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.

Likewise, state officials concerned about college completion would be prodded to ensure that their high schools produce college-ready graduates, maybe boosting graduation standards accordingly. Better yet, they might start to include college matriculation and graduation rates in their high-school accountability systems.

As for colleges, without a federal funding stream for remedial education, many would decide to become more selective, only admitting students who are ready for credit-bearing courses.

This would probably raise the academic tenor of the institution, for students and professors alike. And with fewer students using Pell aid, we could afford to make each grant more generous, removing financial barriers that force well-prepared low-income students to leave before graduation, or not to come at all.

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.

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.

Many would be more successful in job-training programs that don’t require college-level work (or would be better off simply gaining skills on the job). Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce estimates that more than a third of jobs today only require a high-school diploma or less. While these jobs won’t make young people rich, they will keep them out of the grip of poverty, and can propel them to new opportunities.

Furthermore, it isn’t fair to spend scarce dollars on students who aren’t prepared for college; those dollars could instead be used by needy students who are ready. It would be better to place our bets on low-income individuals who are most likely to succeed by boosting the maximum value of a Pell grant. (At $5,500 a year, it’s worth much less today than when Congress created the program decades ago.)

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.” This would be the path of least resistance. Everyone could keep doing what they were doing before, with a wink and a nod, but would further dilute the value of a college degree.

It’s hard to know how many institutions would be willing to disregard academic integrity in such a way; one could imagine it being a lamentably large number. It would be incumbent on government agencies and watchdog groups to shame colleges that attempt to take this route.

On balance, withdrawing Pell subsidies from remedial courses appears promising enough to try. Congress should require the Education Department to create a demonstration program in which colleges and universities volunteer to eliminate their remedial courses and, in return, their qualified low-income students become eligible for more-generous Pell-grant money, thus reducing their own financial-aid obligation.

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.

Michael Petrilli is executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.