McHenry County College: An Emergency in Higher Education, College Students Who Aren't Ready for College

Member Spotlight

There's a little-known crisis occurring across the nation; a problem not many are aware of or would expect. Unless you're an educator. Specifically, a college educator facing a new class of freshmen. Because, it turns out that 66 percent (Complete College America, 2011), or about two-thirds, of your students, all of them recent high school graduates, are not going to be ready for what you are about to teach them.

What does this mean? It means that those students, instead of jumping feet first into freshman year, will spend extra hours and dollars taking remedial courses in math and English just to get them ready for college-level work. Certainly, it's not unusual for some students to be lacking in some educational skills, but two-thirds? And of those students, how many of them are going to get discouraged and quit altogether?

According to state figures, only 14 percent of full-time community college students who begin college with developmental courses graduate in three years. And it's not cheap for taxpayers either. In 2007, Illinois community colleges spent $120.8 million, and public universities spent $5.2 million, on remedial courses. Nationally, it costs over $1 billion to fund developmental education.

McHenry County College (MCC), an institution with approximately 7,000 students in Crystal Lake, IL, is facing the issue head on and fast becoming a model for other community colleges through innovative college and career readiness partnerships with local high schools that reduce the need for high school graduates to take developmental courses in college.

In McHenry County, the figure is not quite two-thirds, but is still "a scary number," said Tony Capalbo, Associate Dean of College and Career Readiness at MCC. "When we all met in 2010 with our Board of Control, they were shocked to hear that number, and they said, 'What are we going to do about this?' So we devised our College and Career Readiness teams."

The four teams are made up of high school counselors and MCC administrators, high school and college faculty in math and English, and high school and college administrators. A fifth team featuring STEM faculty and administrators is in the works. The teams meet at least once a semester, Capalbo said, adding that "faculty participation has been crucial, because they can go into more detail about actual class content and lesson plans to reach common academic goals."

The program outline includes four objectives with corresponding action teams that address curriculum alignment, career goals, increased college and career access and awareness for students and parents, and intervention strategies for standardized testing.

Core tactics cover 15 initiatives including literacy workshops for instructors ("reading across the curriculum"), dual-credit expansion, and a new fourth-year high school math course aligned to the Common Core Standards. The teams are also implementing ACT prep and high-stakes testing strategies for placement tests, eighth grade summer math academies, and innovative outreach to parents focused on cultivating a college-going culture, and an understanding of college resources and the college process.

"Since 2010, it's really made a difference—a positive impact on our high school students," Capalbo said.

The partnerships are paying off as more graduating students are allowed to skip the COMPASS placement exam and place into college-level courses, especially math. For example, 62 percent of high school graduates enrolled in developmental courses at MCC in 2010, compared to 48 percent in 2012.

MCC showcased their efforts in college and career readiness programming at the 2013 Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT) Leadership Congress in Seattle. Event attendees included 1,500 community college trustees, presidents, and senior staff of community colleges from around the country.

The presentation, Ready or Not, Here We Come! Innovations in College and Career Readiness, highlighted MCC's engagement with all 14 McHenry County high schools to decrease the need for high school graduates to take remedial math, reading, and writing courses in college.

"Every high school participates, because all of us have the same goal—to reduce the amount of developmental coursework that high school students need to take at the college level," Capalbo said.

"The key to this progress is the partnerships between the college and the high schools," Capalbo said. He added that early intervention, which includes MCC's STEM-focused Kids and College program (some of these classes have a waiting list this summer) and dual-credit program for high school students, also strongly contribute to college and career readiness success.

"The partnership between Woodstock School District 200 and MCC enables us to work together to develop a seamless transition for our students to post-high school education and job preparation," said George Oslovich, Assistant Superintendent for Middle and High School Education at Woodstock Community Unit School District 200. "MCC now receives students from us who are better prepared to accept the rigor and challenges of a college level course."

"I wish I could take all the credit," Capalbo said, "but it takes a village, and it's all the partnerships with our high school teachers and administrators, plus the superintendents and college instructors, and the administrators at the college...The support for this is coming from the top down, and that is key too. It takes a village, and I'm happy to be a part of it."

Click here to learn more about MCC's College and Career Readiness Initiative.


Complete College America. (2011). Complete College America Illinois 2011. Washington DC: Author. Retrieved from