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.