Too many students are graduating high school without the skills needed to take on college-level course work, local educators and national statistics say.
While community colleges across the suburbs are developing bridge courses -- short-term programs designed to quickly bring students up to par in subjects like math, reading and writing -- some say earlier intervention is critical to success after high school.
"We can't start the college-readiness conversation early enough," said Rich Haney, vice president for educational affairs at the College of Lake County. "Ideally it would be in middle school. We have been really focused on the issue of getting an early start on college. You can't wait for your junior or senior year to prepare."
According to data recently released by the Department of Education, 44 percent of students at public two-year colleges across the country are enrolled in developmental courses. At four-year colleges, 27 percent of students are taking developmental courses.
Data from the ACT program found only 24 percent of 2010 high school graduates were college-ready in all four ACT areas: English, reading, math and science.
In many cases, developmental courses often do not count toward a student's major but are needed before a student can take prerequisite courses.
At the College of DuPage, about 27 percent of the students younger than 25 are enrolled in a developmental class. Seventy-five percent of those students are taking a developmental math course. The college offers three levels, starting at the fifth-grade level up to high school-level intermediate algebra.
"It really is a waste for students on both ends," said Joseph Collins, executive vice president of the College of DuPage. "Sometimes they waste their last year of high school because they don't have to take a fourth year of math and then it's a waste at the college-end when they have to take a remedial math course."
Collins said the college is collaborating with the DuPage Regional Office of Education and six high schools on a pilot program to develop a math curriculum for high school seniors.
"I think the problem is a lack of alignment of curriculum -- what the students are taking at the high school level," Collins said. "That's not aligned properly with what colleges and universities are saying students need to be successful."
Educators like Deborah Alheit, a math instructor at McHenry County College, say the adoption and implementation of the Common Core standards will simplify the alignment of high school and college curriculums when they take effect in the 2014-2015 school year.
"The Common Core is K-12 and should provide a better focus on the basic standards and benchmarks students should be reaching," Alheit said.
The College of DuPage is taking steps earlier to assist students who may be a few points shy of placing into college-level courses.
"Instead of waiting for students to come here in the fall and take a developmental class, the school will teach it in the student's senior year," Collins said. "Students will get it done and then sequence more smoothly to freshman year."
Similarly, McHenry County College is strengthening its relationships with high schools to ensure students know what to expect when they reach campus.
"We have begun sharing details of our curriculum with high school faculty so they can begin teaching and aligning the curriculum with what students are expected to know once they start taking courses here," Alheit said.
In the summer, McHenry County College offered four-hour refresher courses in math to prepare incoming freshmen for placement tests. Of the students the college was able to track, 39 percent were able to pass over one semester of developmental courses, while 4 percent were able to skip two or more developmental courses, Alheit said.
Still, other suburban institutions like Harper College and Elgin Community College have had success with bridge courses that typically are offered during the summer between a student's high school graduation and freshman year of college.
For students like Harper College's Monika Pasek, the Choice Scholars Program gave her the confidence she needed.
"It helped me to improve in math and understand math more," said the 20-year-old elementary education major. "Math was challenging for me, but I found math for elementary teachers fine to do. I am more comfortable with it."
Harper College offers two bridge courses -- the Choice Scholars Program for students on the cusp of testing into college level courses, and the REACH program, designed to give students who graduated on the low end of their class a head start their freshman year of college.
Shante Bishop, assistant professor of academic success at Harper, said the courses provide intensive work that students need.
"What we found is that most students just need the personal touch, the time to focus on certain areas," Bishop said. "We get them to where they were and push them a little further."
Harper also works with high schools through its Alliance for College Readiness, where college faculty members meet with the English and reading faculty at high schools to compare and align curriculum.
"We want to be more of a partnership instead of separate operations," Bishop said.
Elgin Community College has taken a similar track to develop the Summer Bridge, said Julie Schaid, interim dean for college transition and developmental education.
The intensive three-week course has paid off for students who just missed the cutoff for placement in 100-level courses, Schaid said. The 36 students who participated in the ECC program in the summer saved about 133 hours of credit, $13,000 in tuition and $3,700 in textbooks.
"Students are seeing immediate savings this fall because they can move up to a higher level," Schaid said.
That can mean the difference between a student dropping out after first semester, or retaining enrollment status, College of Lake County's Haney said.
"In that first semester, if a student is enrolled in developmental courses, one-third aren't coming back the next semester," Haney said. "And I don't blame them if they're only taking math and English courses. But having success (in a developmental course) enables them to enroll in psychology or other courses that they weren't able to before because they didn't have the proficiency."