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Reducing the Cost of Remedial Education with a Blended Learning Peer Tutoring Platform

Scale personalized and cost-effective remedial education by nurturing youth to become peer tutors who teach other students.

Photo of Sinclair Wu

Written by

Who is the target audience for your idea and how does it reimagine the cost of college?

- Aspiring college students from low-income backgrounds
- High schools, universities, community colleges, education nonprofits and other organizations that help these youth

Remedial education refers to classes taken on a college campus that are below college-level. Students pay tuition and can use financial aid for remedial courses, but they do not receive college credit. Most remediation occurs in reading, writing and math. [1]

When considering all first-time undergraduates, stud­ies have found anywhere from 28-40% of students enroll in at least one re­medial course. When looking at only community college students, several studies have found remediation rates surpassing 50%. [2]

Remediation is costly for states to pro­vide and for students to take. Strong American Schools estimates the costs of remedial education to states and students at around $2.3 billion each year. [3]

Lowering remediation rates will save money. The Alliance for Excellent Education suggests that reducing the need for remediation could generate an extra $3.7 bil­lion annually from decreased spending on the delivery of remedial education and increased tax revenue from students who graduate with a bachelor’s degree. [4]

[1], [2], [3], [4]:  National Conference of State Legislatures - Reforming Remedial Education:

How Our Idea Reimagines the Cost of College:
What if even half of the over two billion dollars currently spent on remedial education could be reallocated to providing more subsidies and scholarships?  

Our idea reduces the cost of remedial education by implementing an instructor-guided peer tutoring program during the summer/semester before college.  Each student, as part of his/her learning experience, is responsible for tutoring 3 other students.  

As this program can be led by fewer instructors (who don’t have to be specialized professors), and to the extent the program can be held in a lower-cost / non-college-campus environment, tuition costs would be reduced.

By tutoring others in what they've learned, students also learn better.

Program completion rates could be increased by:
- A learn-by-teaching model where students are responsible not only for their own learning but also that of others (as a result, instructors no longer have to "teach to the middle" -- they can work with specific groups of students on an as-needed basis)
- Nurturing a sense of community, self-confidence, and being part of something bigger than oneself

Students are:
- Taught both content and tutoring skills
- Grouped by skill level and learning style
- Given support by instructors and student tutors

Students will be matched in groups/learning pods based on criteria such as:
- Academic level
- Learning style
- Personality (e.g., level of growth mindset)

Ways in which technology might be incorporated to reduce costs and improve academic outcomes:
- A mobile app quiz / formative assessment that groups students into learning pods
- Pre-existing or new apps that enable students to post questions and answers online and share best practices
- MOOCs / online videos that might complement in-person tutor-student interaction

What early, lightweight experiment can you try out in your own community to find out if the idea will meet your expectations?

We have talked with local education nonprofits and community colleges, and are exploring opportunities to conduct a pilot tutoring program that incorporates the model described above.

What skills, input or guidance from the OpenIDEO community would be most helpful in building out or refining your idea?

Thank you, OpenIDEO community! Areas we have been brainstorming include:
- Best practices in implementing near-peer tutoring models / programs that nurture growth mindsets
- Contacts at high schools or other education organizations that might be interested in piloting such an after-school program
- Suggestions for technologies that might be most relevant and effective initially

This idea emerged from

  • A group brainstorm

Are you interested in the Path to Pitching track we've developed for this challenge?

  • Yes


Join the conversation:

Photo of Alexandra Alden

Thanks for participating in Feedback Hours with Unreasonable Institute! Here's your feedback:

The Higher Ed Challenge: Path to Pitching Feedback Hours

What excites you about the idea?

Impact is compelling. “Learn by teaching” is a validated model, now they’re systematizing it
Lead instructor teaches 3 students, and each of those teaches 3 students
Relied on past education research
Saw first hand in which they worked and tutored
Potential for technology
Grouping student “pods:” using data to optimize matches according to the strengths and weaknesses individuals
Assessment tools to test students along the way
Have started validating.
Pilot with B&G Club. This OpenIDEO submission is a direct result of a workshop on helping low-income students
Non-profits want to pay for this, but don’t have the funds--no ability to pay
Big market opportunity. $2 billion wasted on remedial courses
Government subsidies

What do they need to work on?

Need to talk to potential customers
Further iteration on the product through direct prototyping with students


What action items did you give them?

Build a customer discovery script. 5-10 standard questions to ask each of their potential payers
Talk to payers, including:
District leaders and/or people experienced selling to districts
Government agencies that fund remediation programs, community colleges, districts etc
Research organizations who are interested in improving college-preparedness--look at other remediation organizations (i.e. your competitors) and see who has funded them

Photo of Sinclair Wu

Thanks, Alex, for connecting us with the Unreasonable Institute.  We enjoyed chatting with Sean!

Photo of Conrad Taylor

Sinclair, this sounds like a wonderful idea because I have participated in such a program at the university level.  

For example, I was selected by the department of mathematics because of my high scores within several mathematical subject areas.  In this case, it was Pre-Calculus, Trigonometry, and Calculus.  Next, the department paid each selected student a stipend to work as a teacher's assistant (TA) to support the lead instructor.  These tutorial services was a university sponsored program and free to the students which took place throughout the year.

Thus, I have the following questions about your proposal:

a) How will students be selected to take on the role of being responsible for 3 other students?

b) What's the incentive for one student to teach another student?  Stipend? Other compensation?

c) How are you planning to identify students that are in need of assistance?  Working with colleges and

d) From my experience at the university, one may need to become knowledgable of each colleges
     and universities assessment practices to better assistance the students prior to entering the 

e) As a tutorial service, it may be a good idea to extend these services throughout the year.  For
    example, a student does well on an assessment examination which puts them in a higher level
    course but this higher level course is simply a bit too much.  Thus, you may want to consider
    broadening the scope of the service because your goal is to see the student succeed within their
    academic career.

f) Is this an online service or an in person service?

Well, these are the questions/comments that I have at this time and please feel free to post followups because this is very very project.

Photo of Sinclair Wu

Awesome -- thanks, Conrad, for sharing some helpful insights!

The cost of remedial education in college is obscured by various factors, e.g.:
- Students/their families pay tuition that could be better spent on higher-level courses; however, that tuition amount remains the same
- Colleges spend time and resources to build and support remedial classes that could be better allocated toward true college-level courses

We have thus decided to shift towards a more urgent pain point:  the lack of cost-effective, high-quality test prep for aspiring college students from low-income backgrounds.

Re: a & b:  we are planning to co-design some of these logistics with students themselves.  Initial ideas include:
- Student tutors could be self-nominated and will potentially earn monetary (e.g., stipend/tuition refund) and/or non-monetary benefits (karma points that can be redeemed)
- Student tutors will be evaluated based on academic and tutoring skills and given focused tutor training

Re: c-e: we have been talking with various education nonprofits and after-school programs.  Additional contacts and leads are always welcome and appreciated!

Re: f:  we are looking at a blended learning model, starting first with in-person tutoring and then incorporating online apps as appropriate

Thanks again for sharing all your thoughts!

Photo of Gina Frassetto

This is a great idea. A few thoughts and questions: 
1) Each student is responsible for tutoring 3 other students. Can you clarify this? Does this mean that there is a group of 4 students in a learning pod and they all tutor each other, or is there some sort of structure where participating tutors are at a higher level and are responsible for 3 other more remedial students?

2) What are some ways to incentivize peer tutoring. Would these programs cost less than the remediation classes offered through the university? How would the peer tutoring aspect be encouraged and rewarded? One idea is through group projects and group grades, but it can be challenging to make the work put into these equitable. 

3) I do know that many schools have peer learning programs of some varieties. UCLA, for example, as peer learning as part of its Academic Advancement Program. City College of San Francisco also has a similar program. These might be good places to start in terms of looking for a place to pilot it. 

Photo of Sinclair Wu

Appreciate your feedback and ideas -- thank you, Gina!  Some initial thoughts:
1) We are leaning toward the latter, where each student pod is led by a peer tutor that is one level higher than that of the other 3 students.  As those 3 students approach the level of their peer tutor, each is then assigned to be a peer tutor for 3 other students...  A couple of us had also talked about a model more similar to your former example:  one where each student in a pod serves as a tutor.  Any thoughts or past experiences related to which model might yield better academic outcomes?

2a.) One idea we've brainstormed is around "karma points" that both tutors and students are granted when a pod moves up from one level to the next.  Karma points might be redeemable for non-monetary rewards for people other than oneself or one's fellow podmates.  
2b.) Our original idea was actually geared toward reducing the cost of after-school tutoring programs  and/or test prep classes (this idea was then adapted to a higher ed context for the OpenIDEO challenge).  It's difficult to measure the true cost of remediation classes -- e.g., students (and/or their parents) pay tuition for remedial classes that could be better allocated to other classes; college instructors teaching remedial classes might be underutilized; governments and higher educational institutions are putting time and financial resources into remedial education; etc.  Definitely open to other ideas as to where such a model might be most needed and most effective...

3) Have heard a bit about the CCSF program -- would love to learn more about both.  Might there be specific websites or contacts at either/both programs that you might recommend?  Thanks again!

Photo of Alexandra Alden

Hey Sinclair! Alex from Path to Pitching here. Cool idea! I would suggest getting out there and doing some lightweight prototyping as soon as possible. Could you run a couple mock sessions with students using existing courseware and tutors? How do you see this functioning as an organization, how could you generate revenue? Check out our Milestones for what we are looking to see from you as far as idea development: 

Photo of Sinclair Wu

Thank you, Alex!  We're in the process of looking for partners (e.g., community colleges, education nonprofits focused on college success, etc.) and/or groups of students to pilot this program with.  Any suggestions or leads would be welcome and appreciated!  And great questions -- definitely ones that we are continuing to brainstorm.

Photo of Joel Gingery

Hi, Sinclair,
Very nice!  I like the fact that students are responsible for instructing other students.  Is it possible that this model could be effective in standard course work?

Photo of Sinclair Wu

Thanks, Joel, for your feedback!  There can be so much potential within students themselves:  when they're given a chance to tutor others, they oftentimes learn better too.

The model could definitely be effective in standard course work.  Khan Academy has done some work in this area (e.g., please see, combining online courses with in-person interaction.   We are building upon that model, enabling more students to become peer tutors.

In aiming to identify a particular niche / MVP to start from, we thought we might consider remedial education as one starting point -- the number of students affected and the dollars currently spent (and sub-optimally allocated) suggest great room for improvement.  Other ideas and suggestions would be welcome and appreciated!