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  1. Lt. Governor

Rock Valley College chief lauds record of community colleges 

Rockford Register Star
January 20, 2012
By Cathy Bayer

Just 19.4 percent of all first-time, full-time students enrolled in Illinois community colleges graduate with an associate degree within three years of enrolling. That’s according to the report Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon issued Thursday to Gov. Pat Quinn and the General Assembly.

At Rock Valley College, the degree or certificate completion rate is slightly higher, but President Jack Becherer warns that doesn’t tell the whole story. Community colleges serve a different purpose from four-year universities, where the goal is to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in four years.

“We graduate 25 percent of our students in a three-year period,” Becherer said. “And while that number doesn’t seem awesome, we transfer 24 percent more. Within three years, 50 percent of our students are meeting our goals.”

Becherer said 65 percent of the college’s students are full time, and part-time students typically need more than three years because they can’t take a full course load each semester. “We are very focused on completion and time-sensitive completion, but it’s not a simple question at a community college.”

Simon’s report didn’t contain any surprises, and Becherer praised her work and communication with educators. Simon visited Rock Valley in October, the final stop on her Complete College Tour, which took her to all 48 Illinois community colleges before the end of 2011.

Simon is a member of the state’s Complete College America team, which is working to increase the proportion of working-age adults with college degrees or certificates to 60 percent by 2025.

Rock Valley officials and local high school leaders are working together to better prepare students for college-level courses — work that will continue after Simon’s report.“

Community colleges are only as good as the students who come to us,” Becherer said. “We don’t have every student come to our college ready to be at our college. But at the same time, we are sharing the responsibility, and we are talking about solutions.”

Fast facts

What she said: Illinois isn’t getting enough out of its community colleges. Instead of degrees or valuable job training, too many students end up with little besides debt.

What’s the problem: Students aren’t ready when they enroll. Almost half of recent high school graduates in Illinois community colleges have to take at least one remedial course, usually in math. These courses don’t count toward a degree but still cost time and money.

What should be done: Require students to take math classes all four years of high school, instead of three; remedial courses also could count toward a degree under some circumstances. Community colleges should simplify the process of transferring to four-year universities and issue “report cards” on student success rates so the public can judge the schools’ effectiveness.

Quotable: “We need to better prepare employees for the workforce, and that starts with sending students to college ready to learn.”