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In Illinois, Lt. Gov. Simon visits all 48 community colleges 

 
Community College Times
October 27, 2011
By Matthew Dembicki

Before becoming lieutenant governor of Illinois this year, Sheila Simon had a pretty good understanding about what community colleges do and the challenges they face.

When she taught law at Southern Illinois University, Simon would often chat with her husband, Perry Knop—chair of the political sciences department at John A. Logan College—about higher education and especially his community college and other two-year institutions.

So when Gov. Pat Quinn asked Simon to be his point person on education, she focused on community colleges, noting that public two-year colleges are the most affordable and accessible form of higher education. Community colleges could also play a key role in helping Illinois increase the number of residents with degrees or certificates to 60 percent by 2025. That goal is part of the state’s economic development strategy: an educated workforce helps retain and recruit businesses, which hopefully creates more jobs.

With community colleges emerging as such a critical partner in the state’s economic plan, Simon wanted to know them better. So in February she embarked on a tour to visit all 48 community colleges in Illinois, which she finished this month.

Eye on remediation

Visiting each college was important to Simon because it allowed her to talk to college leaders, faculty, staff and students to understand the unique and common challenges that the institutions face. It also let her to see firsthand the successes, from top-notch training programs to innovations that better prepare students academically.

With the tour completed, Simon will now write a report that she will send to the governor and General Assembly this winter. She will make recommendations on several key areas, including reducing time to earn a degree, decreasing student debt and increasing college transparency. A prime focus will be tackling remediation, especially in math.

“There’s a large area for improvement,” she said. “We’re spending money to teach math in K-12, and we’re spending a lot of money to teach it over again in the community college system.” 

Many community colleges in Illinois have partnered with high schools and developed successful strategies to address remediation, Simon said. Whether through dual enrollment or assessing students’ academic skills earlier in high school, colleges can help high school students understand the requirements for college-level math, she said. One recommendation that will likely be in Simon’s report is to require high school students to take four years of math to graduate rather than three years, which is the current requirement.

At Elgin Community College (ECC), Simon learned about the Alliance for College Readiness, which brings together educators from ECC and the area’s four public high school districts to align curriculum in math, English and reading. The alliance also created a summer bridge program for high school graduates who are “almost college ready.” The program is team-taught by high school and college faculty.

Since 2007, about 73 percent of students who’ve taken the Alliance refresher course in reading, writing and math have tested out of at least one remedial course. This summer, the program was opened to returning adult students.

Promising practices

William Rainey Harper College has developed a similar collaborative approach by teaming with its three feeder high schools to form the Northwest Educational Council for Student Success. Since its inception, the council has collaborated on college readiness testing and course offerings to reduce the need for remediation. 

In 2010-11, more than 5,700 high school juniors in Harper’s district took math placement tests to gauge their college readiness, up 50 percent from the prior year. As a result of early testing, 88.5 percent of juniors at one participating high school district enrolled in a math class their senior year, compared to 76 percent the previous year.

The council is also helping students finish their college math requirements while they are in high school. Students taking Algebra II also take the final exam for Harper’s Intermediate Algebra course. If they do well on the exam, they can take Harper’s Math 101 class during their senior year. Students that pass Math 101 fulfill their math requirement for college programs that don’t require higher levels of math, saving them time and money.

This summer, Black Hawk College started a program for students who tested into upper levels of developmental math. The Summer Bridges program is designed to bring remedial students up to college-level work in time for fall courses and keep them on track toward a degree or certificate.

Students who attended the faculty-guided math lab—two hours a day, four days a week for six weeks—received a tuition waiver for the course. The college used a Web-based learning system that took students quickly through familiar material and spent more time on their deficiencies. Of the 21 students who completed the course this summer, 16 were reevaluated and ready for college-level math work this fall.

Focused on job training

Job training is another key part of community colleges. In discussing workforce development, Simon often refers to community colleges’ efforts to prepare workers for the green economy.

Prior to her tour, Simon said she had a general idea about the potential for energy efficiency and green energy, but it was “eye-opening” to see Lake Land College implement an energy-saving (and money-saving) plan on campus, in addition to developing training programs for students in those emerging fields. The college’s green efforts have even drawn the attention of officials from Austria, who visited the campus to study its energy plan.

Green energy is also about creating new jobs. Illinois’ first associate degree program for wind turbine technicians was accredited in 2008. Today, 10 community colleges offer a degree or certificate program in wind energy, according to the Illinois Community College Board.

The programs have helped fill nearly 600 jobs supported by the state’s 17 largest wind energy projects, according to Simon, who cited a new economic impact study from the Center for Renewable Energy at Illinois State University.

“Community colleges are responding to market demand for clean energy by preparing students for good-paying, green jobs that stay here in Illinois,” Simon said at a wind energy conference in Chicago this summer. “To continue building our state’s green economy, we need Illinois students to train at in-state schools for highly skilled jobs designing, building, assembling and maintaining wind turbines. I am working to ensure our students have the resources to complete degree and certificate programs in wind energy.” 

But it’s not all about training for green energy. Two-year colleges quickly adapt to other needs in their communities, Simon said in an interview with Community College Times. She cited Kishwaukee College, which operates a diesel power technology program that has seen its enrollment grow. The reason: local agriculture businesses were opting to repair and maintain current tractors rather than buy new ones, so there was a demand for mechanics to service them.

“Community colleges are so in tune with local needs,” Simon said.

Rethinking student aid

Like community colleges across the country, two-year colleges in Illinois are facing tough fiscal times. Community colleges there were flat-funded last year, but education leaders told Simon they are worried that cuts may be on the horizon. They also expressed concerns about student aid for their students. In particular, college officials noted one of the state’s scholarship funds wasn’t serving two-year college students well.

The Monetary Assistance Program (MAP) provides grants to eligible Illinois students at the beginning of the academic year until funds run out. The issue is that community college students often enroll later—for example, workers just laid off—and by then the money has been distributed. Simon said she will recommend that some of the funds be held in reserve to accommodate such students.

Some community colleges are testing how they can better leverage MAP grants. Illinois Valley Community College (IVCC) and two other community colleges have teamed with Northern Illinois University (NIU) through a pilot program that allows students to eventually earn a bachelor’s degree at a lower cost using MAP grants. Through the 2+2 program, participating students accepted at NIU agree to attend IVCC as freshmen and sophomores. They are guaranteed to receive the maximum MAP grant award for four years and a spot at NIU their junior and senior years.

Since IVCC tuition is less than the maximum MAP grant award, students are allowed to keep the difference and apply it to their NIU costs.

According to the Illinois Student Assistance Commission, a student in the pilot program will pay about $6,000 out of pocket for a bachelor’s degree, compared to $20,000 that a student who attends NIU all four years would pay.