DAVIE, Fla. – Professor Derron Bowen teaches high school math to college students, patiently chalking equations on the board on basic arithmetic topics such as the speed of a driver on a a 20-hour trip.
Bowen's class at Broward College in South Florida is for students who didn't score high enough on an entrance test to get into college-level math. In all, about two-thirds of students entering the community college need to take at least one remedial course in math, English or reading.
Nationwide, about a third of first-year students in 2007-08 had taken at least one remedial course, according to the U.S. Department of Education. At public two-year colleges, that number rises to about 42 percent.
Education observers worry that the vast numbers of students coming to college unprepared will pose a major roadblock to President Barack Obama's goal for the United States to once again lead the world in college degrees.
"We don't get there from here," said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia.
In October, the Education Department reported that many states declare students to have grade-level mastery of reading and math when they do not. In a 2007 ACT National Curriculum Survey of college professors, 65 percent said their states poorly prepare students for college-level coursework.
The survey found that professors want students with stronger skills in specific areas, while high schools typically impart a less comprehensive understanding of a broad range of topics.
In his remedial math class in Florida, Bowen sees students who haven't been in school for a decade or more, but some haven't even had time to hang up their high school diplomas.
"How were they allowed to go through?" Bowen said. "I'm thinking, 'If I could have been teaching you back when you were 6, 7, you would be a powerhouse today."
The Obama administration is pushing states to adopt tougher standards, and governors and education leaders across the country are working together to propose a uniform set of common standards. A first draft was released in March, and a final proposal could come this summer.
For others, the problem points to the need to develop alternative forms of job training for people who aren't academically inclined and are unlikely to finish college.
"We're telling kids you'll be a third-class citizen if you don't go to college," said Marty Nemko, an education policy consultant and author. "And colleges are taking kids who in previous generations would not have gone to college."
Nemko favors an apprenticeship program similar to those offered in Finland, Japan and Germany.
That's a point that Daniel Paz, a student in Bowen's class, says he can relate to.
"College is not for me," said Paz, who graduated from high school last year and is considering a career in criminal justice. "It's something I have to do, but if there was another way, than I'd be doing something else."
Some students in remedial courses are older workers trying to jump-start a new career. But a sizable amount are recent graduates who performed well in high school: A 2008 study by the nonprofit Strong American Schools found that nearly four out of five remedial students had a high school GPA of 3.0 or higher.
The price of providing remedial training is costly. The Alliance for Excellent Education estimates the nation loses $3.7 billion a year because students are not learning basic needed skills, including $1.4 billion to provide remedial education for students who have recently completed high school.
"From taxpayers' standpoint, remediation is paying for the same education twice," said Wise.
Students who need remedial classes are also more likely to drop out: Those taking any remedial reading, for example, had a 17 percent chance of completing a bachelor's degree, according to 2004 Education Department data.
At the recent annual American Association of Community Colleges conference, Melinda Gates, co-founder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, called improving or reducing remediation the best way to improve completion rates at community colleges, which hover at around 25 percent.
"Right away, your dreams of going to college are deferred, because technically you're not in college," she said. "If you start in a remedial class, the odds are that you will never finish a credit-bearing course in that subject."
She pointed to positive models: El Paso Community College, which gives prospective students placement tests while still in high school; and Mountain Empire Community College in Virginia, where there are new lesson plans and textbooks to move students through remedial education faster.
The Gates Foundation is spending $100 million to develop new models for remedial education.
Advocates say the need for reform is urgent, pointing to studies that show more jobs in the future will require more education, and that people with less education have been hit with higher levels of unemployment during the recession.
Nemko doubts the notion that most workers will need a higher level degree.
"In every corporation or government agency, there needs to be a small number of people coming out with the great new ideas," he said. "But for everyone one of those, they need 20 to 50 worker bees who are there to provide the product."
At Broward College, there are signs of improvement: The percentage needing remedial education has dropped, from 85 percent of first-time college students, to 74 percent in the 2009 incoming class.
"I don't remember learning any of this stuff in high school," said CaSonya Fulmore, 40, who was laid off from her job as a customer service supervisor with American Express last year. Fulmore is taking a preparatory math class and studying for a degree in social science, with hopes of becoming a counselor.