For Higher Income Students, Money Can’t Buy College Readiness


April 13, 2016

By Anthony Howell 

Plenty has been said about college-bound students leaving high school woefully underprepared for the content and rigor in college-level classes. Typically, these reports (e.g., see here and here) focus on low-income students’ experiences in remedial or developmental coursework – mandatory pre-college level courses that carry zero credit toward a college degree – in community college.

For the majority of remedial students, that’s true. We know that our K-12 educational system disproportionately underserves low-income students, many of whom are students of color. But what is surprising is that developmental education – or inadequate college preparation more broadly – is not solely a ‘lower-class’ issue. In fact, it appears across all financial demographics – among lower-, middle-, and upper-income families. The impact is particularly notable in both high-income ($113,441+) and upper-middle class families ($74,001 – $113,440): nearly one-third – 28 percent – of first-year developmental students who enrolled in college the fall after high school graduation came from wealthy families.


Chart 1 - ERN Blog copy


That was one of the biggest surprise findings in our latest report, Out of Pocket: The High Cost of Inadequate High Schools and High School Student Achievement on College Affordability. Because students have to pay money for extra classes that don’t count towards their college degree, they end up spending money to rehash material that should have been adequately covered in their high school classes. Yes, it is possible to make college even more expensive.

The financial repercussions are real and severe – even among high-income families because they generally pay more for college. What that means is even with more financial resources at their disposal to spend on higher education, the inadequate preparations made by their high school leave them just as susceptible to slip through the cracks.

Consider the following numbers:

  • In 2011, freshmen from upper-middle and high-income families who had to enroll in remedial courses faced an average net price of roughly $2,000 per remedial course. Because students on average take two remedial courses each, this means that these students and their families paid an additional $4,000 for courses that should have been covered before high school graduation.
  • Broken down individually, high-income families are paying an additional $5,000 for remedial classes and upper-middle income families are paying an additional $3,500. To be clear, these costs represent the average net price, which reflects the total cost of college attendance after all grant and scholarship aid is subtracted. In other words, it is a reflection of the out-of-pocket expenses that must go toward remedial classes.


Chart 4 - ERN Blog copy



  • These extra costs ultimately require higher debt burdens – even among high-income families who presumably could have absorbed the extra costs. The amount of debt owed by high-income and upper-middle-income families is over $1,000, with about $540 per course financed by federal and private student loans and Parent PLUS loans.

These numbers are staggering. But the biggest kicker? While upper-income families take on average 2 remedial classes in their freshman year, there is a stark difference at private nonprofit four-year colleges: students from top-income quintile families actually take closer to 3 remedial courses, which is one more than the average number low-income students take.

OOP # Remed Classes Chart


That means that high-income families are paying an additional $12,000 for their nearly 3 remedial courses at private nonprofit four-year colleges.

OOP $12K Chart


The assumption that only students from low-income families suffer inadequate high school teaching and college preparation is, in reality, false. The problem is much more widespread. As shown, it also plagues higher-income families–and, even more so financially, since their out-of-pocket costs are typically much higher than that of lower-income families.

For high-income students at private nonprofit four-year colleges, it’s a double whammy. Not only do they take, on average, more remedial classes, but the higher costs associated with expensive private colleges can take a toll, even on families with more financial security.

It’s time to be honest with ourselves. Our K-12 education system is not preparing all students to be ready academically for college on day one. While this issue has been studied more deeply among high schools serving low-income students, the problem is in fact much more expansive and widespread. Anyone who suggests otherwise is impeding much needed improvement in all students’ academic preparation for college success. Students – from both lower-income and upper-income families – have suffered enough.


Read the full report, Out of Pocket: The High Cost of Inadequate High Schools and High School Student Achievement on College Affordability, here. 


Anthony Howell is an intern with the DFER Political Team. He is a Dean’s List recognized student at New Jersey City University where he majors in Political Science.