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Simon: Illinois community colleges must improve 

 
Associated Press
January 19, 2012
By Shannon McFarland

With four out of five students in Illinois community colleges failing to get a degree on time, Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon is calling for better math education in high schools and tying colleges' funding to student success rates.

In a report to be released Thursday, Simon argues Illinois isn't getting enough out of its community colleges. Instead of degrees or valuable job training, too many students end up with little besides debt.

The Carbondale Democrat said a big part of the problem is that students aren't ready when they enroll. Almost half of recent high school graduates in Illinois community colleges have to take at least one remedial course, usually in math. These courses don't count toward a degree but still cost students time and money.

Simon recommends requiring students to take math classes all four years of high school, instead of just three. Remedial courses could also count toward a degree under some circumstances, she said.

Community colleges should simplify the process of transferring to four-year universities, Simon said, and they should issue "report cards" on student success rates so the public can judge the schools' effectiveness.

"We need to better prepare employees for the workforce, and that starts with sending students to college ready to learn," Simon said in a written statement accompanying her "Focus on the Finish" report.

Some colleges have already taken some of these steps.

John Avendano, Kankakee Community College president, said the faculty there is working with a dozen local high schools to encourage students to take four years of math and to test juniors to identify deficiencies. About 80 percent of incoming students at Kankakee take remedial math. Avendano said their approach has already shown positive results.

Michael Monaghan, executive director of the Illinois Community College Trustee Association, said Simon's plan to link colleges' state aid to student performance is a good idea, if it is done right. It's not as simple as looking at graduation rates, he said, because some students never intend to get a degree. Instead, they want to improve job skills or transfer to a different school.

Simon reported that four out of five recent high school graduates who enroll in Illinois community colleges do not complete a certificate or degree within three years. Many drop out.

Simon is looking into several education issues for Gov. Pat Quinn, including the possibility of merging school districts to improve efficiency. She visited all 48 of Illinois' community colleges before issuing the new report. An aide said Simon's office is working on legislation to require the public report cards and create a performance-based funding formula.

Alexi Giannoulias, chairman of the Illinois Community College Board, said the board is working with businesses to identify how students can be better prepared for the work world. The Midwest has 700,000 unfilled jobs while Illinois has a 10 percent unemployment rate, officials said.

Giannoulias said improving remedial education is a priority because students can become frustrated and drop out when they have to take remedial courses that don't count toward a degree.