In June, Alex Jones graduated from Thornton Township High School in south suburban Harvey. He was ranked 14th in his class. His mother, Peggy, said she wanted Alex to come to Prairie State College in south suburban Chicago Heights because she works there as an administrative assistant and thought it would be a good way to acclimate her son to college.

Peggy Jones is upset that her son, Alex, had to do remedial work in college, despite having a strong record in high school. (Photo by Jason Reblando)

But, when he started classes at the community college in the fall, Alex was told that he would have to take developmental math and English classes.

Jones was shocked. She went back to Thornton and complained. “This is a kid that did his homework and showed up at class and was on the honor roll, and then he comes to a community college and can’t take college-level classes,” she said. “The school didn’t prepare him.”

Alex is not alone.

During the past decade, increasing numbers of students are entering community colleges and even some four-year institutions and taking remedial classes before college-level ones.

Advocates say that this phenomenon is the direct result of inadequate high schools and evidence that public school systems don’t get enough money. The advocates say the results are greater costs—not only for the remedial classes but also for the reduced earnings of remedial students, who are more likely to drop out of college without a degree.

Nationwide, 42 percent of community college freshmen and 20 percent of those at four-year institutions enroll in at least one remedial college course, according to the National Council of Education Statistics. In August, the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, estimated the costs to the nation at $3.7 billion a year.

Illinois alone would save $80 million a year in what it now spends on remediation classes and gain another $129 million in additional earnings if the need for such classes was eliminated, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education.

At Prairie State, the problem is especially acute. Some 80 percent of students test into what the college dubs “developmental” classes for at least one subject, and 58 percent test into such classes for all subjects.

Test scores are significantly below average at most of the public high schools in Prairie State’s service area, according to Linda Uzureau, Prairie State’s vice president of academic affairs.

Homewood-Flossmoor High School is the one exception. Uzureau said students that come to Prairie State from the south suburban Flossmoor school are noticeably more prepared than ones from the other public high schools. “Homewood-Flossmoor is very rigorous and very diverse,” said Uzureau, whose son went from Homewood-Flossmoor to Stanford University.

She noted that students must attend a line-up of college preparatory classes in order to graduate at Homewood-Flossmoor. At some other schools, only certain students are identified as “college preparatory,” she said.

In addition, all students take four years of math at Homewood-Flossmoor, whereas students at other schools may only be required to take two years of math, Uzureau said.

Some students could wind up testing into developmental math when they enter Prairie State if they’ve only had two years of high school math and they’ve been removed from the subject for a couple of years.

Uzureau said the burden then falls on the community colleges to keep these students motivated.

Prairie State got grant money to offer guidance counselors for these students to help troubleshoot their doubts and frustrations. The school also pairs remedial classes with those that count toward graduation. For example, after a developmental reading class, a humanities teacher comes in and teaches a class.

But to offer all these remediation programs cost money. Paul McCarthy, president of Prairie State, notes that community colleges have also had funding hits in the past few years, and that impedes their ability to serve this population.

But the consequence of these students dropping out is dire, not just in terms of costs, but also in terms of how people live. “The issue is that, in this society, the ability of people to live a middle-class lifestyle is impeded without a college degree,” McCarthy said.

is an associate editor for our sister publication, Catalyst Chicago.