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Getting better by degrees 

Courier News
August 4, 2012
By Susan Demar Lafferty

In a few short weeks, students will flock back to college campuses, including to area community colleges in Elgin, Crystal Lake, Sugar Grove and Glen Ellyn.

While school officials are pleased that enrollments for the most part have climbed the past few years, they are part of a chorus that includes President Barack Obama joining a single refrain: It is equally important for students to finish what they start.

The president, who earlier this year unveiled the $8 billion Community College to Career fund, said he wants to see graduation rates rise to 60 percent by 2020. Currently, just four in 10 people who begin college continue their studies through graduation.

Announcing the new initiative in February at Northern Virginia Community College, Obama encouraged students to train their focus on “the American promise” of material comfort in exchange for hard work.

“And the defining issue of our time is how to keep this promise alive today — for everybody,” Obama said.

With an elevated profile in the years that have lapsed since the economy wilted, community colleges play a key role in higher education. Enrollments reached 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 a certificate — to 60 percent. The future economy and future employers will demand no less, officials said.

‘College material’

At the recent 2012 College Changes Everything conference in Tinley Park, 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 to 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 area said they are prepared to prove the point.

Some have launched targeted campaigns, such as the American Association of Community Colleges’ Accepting the College Completion Challenge, adopted by the board of trustees at Waubonsee Community College in Sugar Grove. Spokesman Jeff Noblitt called that “a symbolic, but I think important, step.”

At College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, work toward the completion goal begins when the new enrollee arrives.

“Our goal is to really start to transform students,” said Sue Martin, dean of student services. “Once they come into the campus, are admitted to the campus, to try to transform them into college students. We do that by engaging them.”

Engagement partly takes the form of new and friendly faces. The college links new students with counselors uniquely positioned to help them settle in and formulate their vision. Known as a “student success counselor,” the assigned individual helps the newcomer begin building relationships at the school and find out more about navigating the college years.

“The research shows that when we can connect and engage them early on, that first semester, those students will tend to be more successful,” Martin said.

ECC efforts

Elgin Community College also requires first-year, full-time students to enroll in a College 101 course, which has been expanded this year, according to Libby Roeger, dean of college transitions and developmental education.

Her position recently was created to ensure that students have the tools and resources they need to be successful, according to the college.

ECC also will host a new-student convocation in the fall that mimics commencement to show students what that feels like and encourage them to complete their degrees and certificates.

“We’re really talking about setting the pace for them and the foundation for them as college students,” Roeger said.

But ECC’s efforts to make sure students are college-ready begin long before those students enroll with its Alliance for College Readiness and Summer Bridge program.

The program helps incoming students who test almost college-ready to catch up rather than take remedial courses. The lieutenant governor singled out both programs in a report following her tour of the state’s community colleges.

The alliance, which began in 2006, is a partnership between ECC and the four school districts with high schools in Elgin Community College District 509. Most recently, college professors and high school teachers collaborated on a fourth-year math program that will make sure students are ready for college-level courses, she said.

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.

Several are seeing some payoff already.

Elgin Community College awarded about 1,400 degrees and certificates at the end of the spring semester in May. That’s the largest number in the college’s history, the school said at the time.

And Waubonsee conferred 1,589 certificates and two-year degrees in June 2011, an increase of 25 percent in just two years. Noblitt said totals for the most recent academic year have not yet been finalized, but they look “very, very strong.”

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

Enrollment dip

Head counts at ECC have leveled off or dipped since they hit their all-time highest — 12,219 students — in fall 2010. Martin said the school is not alone in that downturn. COD also has seen numbers drop in the past few years.

“Many colleges and universities have been hit by that,” she said, surmising that tuition increases resulting from cutbacks in state support have deterred some potential enrollees.

Larger numbers of “traditional-age” students have signed up for classes at COD since many household budgets began to tighten.

“Even families that may have a couple of years ago been able to send their child to a four-year university, because of job losses or market factors are sending them to a college in their community now,” Martin said.

Phil Garber, executive director of planning and institutional effectiveness at ECC, also pointed to the economy. It’s possible, he said, it may be improving and more people are finding jobs instead of going back to school.

And enrollment numbers don’t take into account the percentage of students who are returning to the school, semester after semester, and completing degrees or certificates there, he said.

Of students who started in 2007, 15 percent completed a typical two-year degree or certificate by 2010, according to Garber. That number jumped to 20 percent among students who started in 2008 and completed by 2010. The director won’t have the numbers for 2011 until the end of the fall semester, he said, but they appear to be moving “in the right direction.”

“The ones focused on completing degrees are really doing that, and we’re seeing our retention rates go up as well,” he said.

Money matters

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.

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 choose wisely, Simon noted, they are more apt to finish and not be burdened with debt.

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?”

Noblitt is confident that Waubonsee is ensuring that will happen by taking a proactive approach from the outset and continually evaluating the effectiveness of its initiatives.

“If students don’t get started on the right foot, they’re going to be less likely to complete their studies and meet their goals,” he said. “Obviously we’re doing a lot — but as they say, the proof is in the pudding.”

Staff writers Emily McFarlan and Susan Frick Carlman contributed to this report.