February 10, 2011
By Jacob Long
TWIN CITIES - Illinois' new Lieutenant Governor has her first big assignment.
Democrat Sheila Simon will now be in charge of education reform for Governor Pat Quinn.
Simon broke the news while speaking to the Illinois Community College Board on Thursday in Bloomington.
That audience was no coincidence. Simon says she wants to focus on community colleges first.
Her plan is to visit all 48 of them in Illinois this year. She wants to see how students are preparing for jobs of the future.
"What we're trying to say is Illinois is doing its part to make sure we're leaders. We're getting back up to a percentage that's going to make us competitive in the world again," Simon says.
The U.S. once lead the world in education. We're now ranked twelfth.
A key component of Simon's education plan centers around completion rates. In particular, she's challenging community colleges to reduce the number of students who fall through the cracks.
As WMBD's Twin Cities Bureau Chief Jacob Long reports, it's a mission Heartland Community College is ready to embrace.
Student Brittany Taylor says, "Originally, I was supposed to go to SIUE to play soccer. But I had actually decided to stay closer to home."
Students choose to attend community colleges like Heartland for a variety of reasons. The same goes for when they choose to leave.
"I know a few people who started their first semester here then they left and decided they didn't want to go to college. They couldn't take it," says student John Ziemkowski.
Those are the kind of students education leaders are now targeting.
Heartland President Dr. Allen Goben says, "Our students have multiple challenges so we need a multifaceted approach."
Only 41% of working adults in Illinois have a degree. Simon wants to get that to 60% by the year 2025.
One way is to motivate students at a younger age.
"When students plan to succeed, they can achieve it," Goben says.
Another strategy is to make sure the students who are already in school have the support and encouragement they need.
Ziemkowski says, "I think it's really going to help me advance my career and help me a lot to make money and have a better job in this economy."
That's just the outcome leaders are predicting. They say increasing completion rates will lead to a better society for everyone.
Goben says, "Research shows community colleges boost the economy. They lower the crime rate in the criminal justice system and they improve the well-being of citizens."
Heartland's last known completion rate was 40%.
You might be wondering how the Lieutenant Governor plans on paying for her plan. She says money from the recent income tax hike will go to community colleges.