Community colleges have traditionally been a means for the budget-conscious to pursue a higher education and a well-paying job after graduation. However, if the student does not end up finishing his degree or certificate program, he gains little more than excessive debt - and no credentials to get the job he needs to pay off his school loans. In the state of Illinois, the number of community college students who find themselves in this position is alarmingly high – so much so that the lieutenant governor of the state, Sheila Simon, wants to write new legislation to significantly improve community college graduation rates over the next decade.
Focus on the Finish
The new report released by Simon’s office, titled, “Focus on the Finish,” provides statistics on current graduation rates at Illinois community colleges, as well as recommendations to improve those numbers. Nearly one million students enroll in Illinois community colleges every year. According to Lt. Governor Simon’s website, the report shows that four out five recent high school graduates in Illinois who attend community college do not earn their degree or certificate within three years.
“We’re doing a good job of getting all types of students into the doors of community colleges,” Simon stated on her website. “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.”
Simon explains that there are currently 142,000 jobs available in the state, yet thousands of Illinois residents are currently out of work.
“That doesn’t add up to a strong economy,” Simon said. “We need to better prepare employees for the workforce, and that starts with sending students to college ready to learn.”
Remedial Math a Problem for Many
One of the top reasons for a low completion rate, according to the “Focus on the Finish” report, is the fact that nearly half of all community college students in the state must take a remedial math course before they can begin their regular coursework. According to a report in the Chicago Tribune, these courses take time and money, but do not help students get any closer to earning their degrees. The longer it takes to earn those degrees, the more likely students are to drop out of a program prior to completion.
Simon has proposed a three-prong approach to solving this problem, which includes:
- A voluntary requirement by high schools that students take a full four years of math, instead of the three years currently required by the state
- A partnership between high schools and community colleges to offer dual-credit math courses to high school juniors and seniors
- A redesign of remedial courses at community colleges so developmental skills are included in credit-bearing courses, rather than requiring students to pay for separate classes that do not count toward a degree
To help achieve these goals, Simon told WBEZ that she would work on legislation to provide incentives to high schools that voluntarily require four years of math for graduation.
An Example to Follow
The Chicago Tribune also reports that one community college in the state has already become proactive in ensuring students have the math skills they need when they enroll in college. Kankakee Community College is working with a dozen local high schools to encourage students to take a full four years of math during the high school years. Juniors at these high schools are also tested to determine if deficiencies are noted long before college becomes a reality. Currently, about 80 percent of students entering Kankakee require remedial math courses, according to the college’s president, John Avendano. However, the new work with neighboring high schools is already showing positive results for Kankakee students.
Other Proposals on the Table
In addition to the measures to address math deficiencies, Simon’s office has made other recommendations for improving graduation rates that Simon hopes will eventually become legislation. The first, according to the Huffington Post, is to link school performance to state funding, encouraging schools to promote better completion rates internally as well. The Illinois Board of Higher Education is supporting Simon in this effort.
“The university and community college systems are working with Lt. Governor Simon to better measure and reward success at each of our unique institutions,” George Reid, executive director of the board, stated on Simon’s website. “We will continue to foster this relationship and share information to ensure transfer students are prepared for university work and graduates are ready for the workforce.”
A second proposal is to require public report cards that could provide students with important information that would better predict effective career paths. Simon believes community colleges need to be more transparent about their success rates and the progress they are making in moving toward a completion goal. She wants the annual report card to include the number of students who complete courses, degrees, certificate programs and transfers.
“Tracking and reporting the progress toward our completion goal will raise the profile of community colleges and the role they play in our state’s jobs recovery,” Miguel de Valle, chairman of the P-20 Council, a non-profit dedicated to improving education for Illinois residents, stated on Simon’s website. “Annual college report cards can be an important tool in engaging students, educators and taxpayers in our pursuit of a highly educated workforce.”
Other educators, business owners and legislators have joined Simon’s fight to see completion rates at community colleges improve. The next step will be to introduce legislation and work on reforms at an administrative level.