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Southland community colleges part of national degree decree 

Southtown Star
July 24, 2012
By Susan Demar Lafferty

In just a matter of weeks, students will be flocking back to college campuses, including to area community colleges from Chicago Heights to Palos Hills to Joliet.

While officials at the local schools are excited that enrollments for the most part have climbed the past few years — and they constantly work to further increase those numbers — they have begun to spread a message being pushed by state officials and even President Barack Obama: It is equally important for students to finish what they start.

The college graduation rate nationally is 40 percent. Obama would like that to increase to 60 percent by 2020.

What community colleges do is one of the keys, as they have played an increasingly important role in higher education since the economy wilted, with enrollment reaching record levels in 2008, ’09 and ’10 — although the numbers are expected to dip a bit this year.

State and federal leaders want more adults to complete college, too. The goal is to increase the percentage of working-age adults with higher education credentials — a two- or four-year degree, or certificate — to 60 percent. The future economy and future employers will demand no less, officials said.

The ‘stay in school’ pitch

At the recent 2012 College Changes Everything conference in Tinley Park, Illinois Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon outlined what needs to be done to achieve that 60 percent target.

Illinois already has a slight jump, with a college graduation rate of 41 percent to 43 percent, compared with a national average of 40 percent, she said.

“There has to be a change in attitude about what college is, about who is ‘college material,’ ” Simon said in a telephone interview.

She toured all 48 community colleges in the state in the fall, and said they will play a key role in achieving the goal because they are “geographically and financially accessible” and have an “open-door policy.”

“No matter what your abilities are, you can find something at a community college that fits you,” Simon said.

Community college officials in the Southland said they are prepared to meet that challenge. Some have launched clever campaigns, such as “Get your degree at PSC,” at Prairie State College in Chicago Heights, or “Agree to Degree,” at Moraine Valley Community College in Palos Hills.

In the fall, 350 Moraine Valley students signed a mass pledge to do whatever it takes to graduate before they transfer to a four-year school or enter the job market. The college is working with the Community College Completion Corps in response to Obama’s pledge to boost college completion rates.

School officials are driving home the message that a degree or certificate increases job opportunities and income, and eases the process of transferring to a four-year college.

The payoff: Moraine Valley this spring issued 2,644 degrees and certificates, an 18 percent increase over last year, and a 60 percent increase from five years ago, MVCC spokesman Mark Horstmeyer said.

“Students are listening and do understand the need to complete a degree or certificate,” he said.

Joliet Junior College conferred 1,431 associate degrees in 2011 — a 23 percent increase over the previous year.

JJC offers a plethora of support services, academic help, tutors, counselors, academic advisers and career services to keep students on task, and it’s all available at the school’s new campus center.

“Everyone who interacts with students helps to retain them,” JJC dean of enrollment management Susan Paddock said,

For Prairie State College to achieve Obama’s 50 percent increase, the school will need an additional 72 students per year to complete their degree work, school spokeswoman Jennifer Stoner said.

“We were going in that direction, but there’s a bigger push now,” she said. “The president is helping us sell that message.”

What she called a “huge focus” on retention includes a team of advisers who work with students in small groups, such as veterans, athletes, Hispanics or African-Americans. They discuss financial aid, track grades, and “give them the attention they need, a place to go for help,” Stoner said.

“We’ve been leaving the back door open,” she said. “Now, we’re closing the door and keeping them here to help them get some credentials before leaving, to finish what they start.”

Money matters

School officials said the economy was a key factor in students returning to college, but it also is the reason enrollment is dipping again.

Summer enrollment at PSC was down 1 percent from the previous summer. Stoner said that’s due to people getting jobs again or, on the other end of the spectrum, exhausting their financial resources or unemployment benefits.

Affordability is a key issue in completing a college education. Simon said she is working on that “on all fronts.”

She is part of a Monetary Award Program (MAP) eligibility task force, created this year by the Illinois General Assembly to establish new rules and improve the effectiveness of MAP grants in getting students to complete a degree program.

Among the ideas being considered are basing the grants on a student’s ability to demonstrate academic success, and a college’s ability to improve student progress and provide its own financial aid.

JJC recruitment specialist Andy Sarata said money is still a “huge issue” for potential students.

“We try to catch them before their senior year of high school, to get them to prepare early for college,” he said.

Sarata estimated that just under 50 percent of JJC students receive financial assistance.

High school graduates realize their financial aid dollars will go much further — allowing them to save thousands of dollars per year — at a community college, said Patrick Rush, a spokesman for South Suburban College in South Holland.

Simon said college-bound students need to know up front the exact cost of college, as well as the school’s rate of success and common fields of study to help them make the right choice. Such college information needs to be “cereal box” accessible, she said.

If students make better choices, they are more apt to finish and not be burdened with debt, she said.

Math matters, too

In her fall tour of community colleges, Simon said she saw room for improvement, especially in math readiness skills — which she said is the “single biggest barrier” to being successful in college.

“Every college has unacceptable high levels of students who are not ready to do college-level math, and it takes them longer to get a degree. The longer it takes, the more discouraged they get,” she said.

Simon said community colleges need to share information with each other and with their feeder high schools to find out what they are teaching, and where the challenges are.

While she is working on a bill to develop a statewide math curriculum, Joliet Junior College has launched a pilot program to accelerate students through developmental programs in math and writing so they can get to the classes they want sooner, said Bette Conkin, JJC’s dean of liberal arts and sciences.

Students now are required to attend an orientation program and can get assistance in selecting the right courses, she said.

“We were not tracking students very well. We are changing that,” Conkin said. “Before, all students were treated as if they were seeking a degree. We have to address a variety of students.”

While the majority of community college students are degree-oriented, many may come to hone their skills with a class or two, or take a noncredit course. Many are juggling jobs and children, too.

Simon said the focus at the community college level should be: “Are students getting what they want out of their experience?”

At South Suburban College, Rush said the majority of students are part time, with an average age of 30.

“Their time is extremely valuable to them,” he said.

Stoner agreed.

“Students want their time here to be valuable. We don’t want them to have a loan and no job,” she said. “We want them to have something to show for it.”