Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Paul Attewell

Committee Members

Jessica Halliday Hardy

Susan Dumais

Julia Wrigley

Subject Categories

Educational Sociology | Gender and Sexuality | Higher Education | Inequality and Stratification | Science and Mathematics Education | Sociology


sociology of education, community colleges, remedial/developmental education, mathematics, gender, postsecondary aspirations


Referral to remedial coursework in mathematics is a significant barrier to degree attainment for community college students, which in turn has serious consequences for their employment and earning prospects. Students are placed into remediation when they are deemed unprepared to engage in college-level coursework, most often based on a score on a placement test. Nationally, 59% of community college students are placed into remedial math courses. Of these, only 49% complete remediation and gain access to college-level coursework. Because a college-level math course is often a degree requirement, many students who fail to complete remedial math courses are forced to abandon their pursuit of postsecondary credentials. While many quantitative studies have focused on the effects of remediation on students’ postsecondary outcomes, few studies have examined students’ experiences in remedial math courses or the mechanisms that may contribute to observed outcomes. Consequently, little is known about how students experience and respond to remedial course taking in math; what mechanisms underlie their success, failure, or persistence through remedial requirements; or how these experiences affect their future educational plans.

This mixed-methods study is designed to improve understanding of the effects of college remediation in math by exploring the following research questions: (1) How do students experience placement into and course taking in remedial math, and how do these experiences affect their educational plans and goals? (2) How do students perceive and respond to course failure? (3) How widespread is course repetition, and how does it affect students’ course performance and achievement of other postsecondary milestones? (4) Are there gender differences in course enrollment patterns or student responses to course taking or failure in remedial math?

To answer these questions, I draw on data from interviews with 60 students enrolled in remedial math courses at two City University of New York (CUNY) community colleges, along with a deidentified administrative data set containing demographic and semester-by-semester course-level data. The administrative data include course numbers, grades or pass/fail flags, and credits earned for 23,000 students enrolled in any math course at three CUNY community colleges (including the qualitative data collection sites) from 2013 to 2016. I follow the math course-taking patterns of two cohorts of students, those who entered college in 2013 and those who entered in 2014, over two years. I focus on community colleges because although students attending four-year public and private colleges also take remedial courses, remediation is far more widespread in community colleges. Similarly, I focus on remediation in math rather than in reading or writing because remedial math placement is far more common—and seemingly more problematic in terms of course failure and rates of attrition.

Evidence from this study suggests that setbacks in math remediation do not diminish postsecondary aspirations for all students. Assignment to remediation has long been viewed as a key mechanism through which community college students lose the ambition to pursue a degree. However, 60% of students in the current study who failed or withdrew from remedial math courses repeated courses one or more times in order to make academic progress; 33% repeated courses two or more times. The existence of remedial “repeaters,” along with the apparently widespread nature of course repetition, calls into question the assumption that referral to remediation, or even failure, necessarily diminishes postsecondary aspirations.

Qualitative data from interviews with 31 students who failed and repeated remedial courses highlight the motivations underlying course repetition. The majority of repeaters found repeating remedial courses to be a minor setback in their college plans rather than a crisis that undermined their belief that they would eventually attain a degree. Students drew on their relationships with family and community members for support as they persevered despite setbacks in remediation. Further, some repeaters were motivated by the threat of exhausting their financial aid, often as a result of multiple repetitions. These findings imply that while many students struggle to complete remedial math courses, lack of postsecondary aspiration and motivation are not primary barriers to completion.

Female students appeared to have a performance advantage in remedial mathematics. Despite a higher likelihood of being placed into remediation—and at lower levels than their male counterparts—female students had 30% higher odds of completing remedial math requirements and 24% higher odds of passing introductory college-level math courses within two years. Course-taking patterns reveal that female students were more persistent than male students: Female students were more likely to repeat courses after failing or withdrawing from them, while male students were more likely to drop out of remedial sequences after failures or withdrawals. Qualitative data shed light on some possible mechanisms contributing to this female advantage. Female students reported higher levels of effort in their remedial math courses: They completed more hours of homework per week, utilized more academic supports, and rated their level of effort devoted to the courses higher on average than male students did. These findings imply that the female advantage observed in four-year colleges extends to community colleges and remedial course outcomes. Further, to the extent that setbacks in remediation contribute to students giving up on college, this appears to happen more frequently to male than to female students. There appears to be a relationship between gender and the stability of postsecondary aspiration, though more research is needed to understand why male students are more likely to drop out of remedial sequences after failures.

Overall, findings from this study suggest that the causal effects of remedial math courses have been overstated. Many factors, including students’ postsecondary and career goals, financial situation, and past experiences with math, play a role in their experiences and course outcomes in remediation. It is difficult to isolate the effects of remedial math courses and unlikely that these courses per se cause longer term postsecondary outcomes. A qualitative exploration of the experiences of 11 students in remedial math courses suggests that classroom-level factors related to curriculum, class size, and quality of instruction affect whether students have positive or negative experiences in remediation. Students who experienced development in terms of math learning in remedial math courses had positive experiences with instructors, describing them as patient and willing to respond to questions and review material. In contrast, students who had discouraging experiences often described negative interactions with instructors: Instructors had limited patience to review material and concepts, and consequently students often felt intimidated to seek help from instructors. Further, clear postsecondary and career goals appear to play a role in moderating the discouraging effects of remediation. Students who had clear goals for further education and careers and connected them with their progress in remediation seemed better able to adjust to setbacks and discouraging experiences in remediation and to persevere in college