January 19, 2012
By Monique Garcia
Almost a million students enroll in Illinois community colleges each year, seeking a more affordable and accessible alternative to traditional four-year universities, to try to learn new skills, or to brush up on old ones.
But fewer than 1 in 5 first-time students who take full loads of classes graduate with associate degrees within three years — a statistic Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon says creates "revolving doors to the unemployment line."
The findings come in a new report Simon plans to release Thursday based on a fact-finding tour she took of the state's 48 community colleges last year. Simon is a former law instructor at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, and her husband, Perry Knop, is a political science professor at John A. Logan College in Carterville in southern Illinois.
"We're doing a good job of getting all types of students into the doors of community colleges," Simon said. "But now we need to do a better job of moving them across the stage at graduation with a certificate or degree that leads to a good-paying job here in Illinois."
Among the colleges that graduated the fewest students within that time period are the City Colleges of Chicago. Malcolm X College fares the best out of city schools with 11 percent of full-time students completing a degree within three years, while Harold Washington College ranks last in the state, with just 4 percent of students reaching that goal.
City Colleges spokeswoman Katheryn Hayes said those kind of numbers are why the system has embarked on a plan to reinvent itself. The administration searched for new presidents at many of the schools.
"We are working to shift the paradigm around our community college system from an institution focused solely on access to one that couples student access with success," Hayes said in a statement.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel is scheduled to talk about City Colleges initiatives Friday when he addresses the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington.
Simon's report found that many of the problems in Illinois start in high school, where students fail to learn the math, science and English skills needed for college work. That's particularly true for math, as more than a third of recent high school graduates take at least one remedial math course upon entering community college.
That's problematic because remedial courses do not count toward graduation, taking up time and money. The longer it takes to complete meaningful classes, the more likely students are to drop out.
Simon suggests high schools should agree to make students to take four years of math instead of the three the state currently mandates. She also says high schools and community colleges should work together to offer math courses to high school juniors and seniors that count as college credit, and is encouraging community colleges to alter remedial courses so they bring students up to speed but also count toward graduation.
In addition, the lieutenant governor wants community colleges to be more transparent about student success rates and has proposed the schools draft consumer report cards that show how many students complete courses and degrees, and how many transfer to universities.
Simon said the state should also change how it doles out funds to schools. Currently dollars are handed out based on enrollment figures. She wants to change that so money follows performance. The Illinois Board of Higher Education is working to create those standards.
Alexi Giannoulias, chairman of the Illinois Community College Board, said it's essential that schools improve their track record because they "are absolutely the future of the Illinois economy."
"We have a lot of work to do, but we realize how critically important it is from job creation standpoint," said Giannoulias, a former state treasurer.
For Laurel Snyder, a 27-year-old single mother, completing community college was vital to improving her future and those of her two sons. Snyder first enrolled at Rock Valley College in Rockford before dropping out partway through the semester because of the demands of motherhood and the stress of having recently moved.
Snyder eventually returned to school and graduated last semester. She now is at Rockford College, where she is majoring in biochemistry with a minor in secondary education. Snyder said she knows completing college can be difficult, but she encourages students who are struggling to seek out campus resources, whether that be tutoring for a class or consulting counselors.
"It's a really good feeling (to graduate)," Snyder said. "Do the best that you can. Put in the effort, and find the time."