Panel Paper: Remediation and College Major Choice

Saturday, November 10, 2018
Lincoln 3 - Exhibit Level (Marriott Wardman Park)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Whitney Kozakowski, Harvard University

Students entering postsecondary institutions in the U.S. are often placed into non-credit-bearing reading, writing, or math courses (called developmental or remedial courses) based on their score on a placement test they take when entering college. Nationwide, 68 percent of two-year college students and 40 percent of four-year college students take at least one remedial course in their first year of college (Chen, 2016). While the courses are intended to help less prepared students gain the skills necessary to succeed in a college-level math course, the literature on remediation has tended to find null to negative effects of participation in remediation on student persistence, degree completion, and earnings.

One reason for these findings could be that remediation is not targeted at the students who are most likely to benefit from it. In particular, it is possible that the effects of remediation might vary depending on a student’s choice of major. Students in math-intensive majors may benefit from receiving remedial math instruction, as the skills learned in these courses could serve as a foundation for later courses in these majors. However, mastering the concepts in remedial math may not be necessary for students in less math intensive majors, such as Communications, to succeed in their later courses. For these students, math remediation may simply be an unnecessary barrier to their success in college.

Using six years of data from a state in the Northeast, this study will use a regression discontinuity design to examine how assignment to math and reading remediation at four-year and two-year public colleges in the state affects student persistence, performance in later courses in the same subject, and six-year college graduation rates, with an emphasis on how these effects differ by major. This study will also examine how assignment to math or reading remediation affects a student’s choice of major. Labeling a student as remedial in a subject may send a signal about her likelihood of earning a degree in that subject. As a result, students may switch majors to subjects that they perceive themselves to be better at. In particular, students who possess a comparative advantage in math or reading (i.e. students who score high enough in reading to avoid remediation but not math, or vice versa) may be induced to switch to majors that play to their strengths. This study will also explore how students’ responsiveness to these signals vary by gender. As Kugler, Tinsley, and Ukhaneva (2017) find that women are more likely to leave male-dominated STEM majors when they receive poor grades in a subject, it is also possible that women are more likely to change majors away from math-intensive subjects when they are assigned to math remediation.

The results from this study will help colleges to identify if there are specific groups of students who might benefit or are harmed by being assigned to remedial reading or math courses, particularly as it relates to major choice, so that they can better target remediation to improve student outcomes.