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Chicago ‘Reinvents’ Community College

The city is retooling its community colleges to graduate more students ready for the workforce. Some worry the changes aren't focused on finding graduates the best kind of jobs.

Gabriel Barrington, a student at one of Chicago's community colleges, is seeking a bachelor's degree in manufacturing technology.
Ana Vargas
Gabriel Barrington is positioning a small piece of metal onto an engine lathe in the shop room at Richard J. Daley College on Chicago’s South Side. The room is the size of an airplane hangar, but with the raw industrial trappings of a place devoted to fashioning metal into useful things. After demonstrating how the engine lathe allows him to narrow the diameter of the metal bit, Barrington explains he’s back in school to rack up manufacturing certifications and credit hours for an eventual transfer to the Illinois Institute of Technology, where he’d like to earn a bachelor’s degree in manufacturing technology.

A 27-year-old resident of the city’s mostly black Bronzeville neighborhood, Barrington had been working as an uncertified welder—not illegal, but not lucrative—when he read a newspaper story about major changes at Chicago’s seven city colleges (the local version of community colleges). The changes at City Colleges of Chicago are meant to tailor programs to the skills that employers demand. The story got Barrington’s attention because he wanted to learn complex machining in ways that his existing job didn’t permit. “As a welder,” he says, “you see the stuff that comes off the machines and think, ‘Wow, I’d rather be a part of that.’ There’s just such a wealth of materials and possibility.”

Barrington is a City Colleges dream student. The certifications he’d like to get under his belt—welding, blueprinting and the science of measurement—could offer him a better full-time job than he had when he entered, and if he completes that bachelor’s degree, he’s all but guaranteed higher lifetime earnings.

After taking a hard look over the past several years at why its City Colleges students weren’t graduating in sufficient numbers or attracting the attention of employers, Chicago decided to make big changes. Today it’s in the midst of an overhaul that aims to get more certifications and diplomas in the hands of students like Barrington. The initiative seeks to make the two-year city college curriculum more economically relevant and ease the path to completion through direct business input on curriculum, maps for students that show the most efficient way to reach their destination and new scheduling that allows students to enter the workforce while they are still studying. The ideas aren’t necessarily new; a small number of institutions across the country have tried them. But Chicago is a seven-college system of 115,000 students, and it’s experimenting with a broad range of strategies in an ambitious effort to plug gaps in the region’s workforce needs for years to come.

What city and college officials have called “reinvention” is focused in large part on increasing the rate of transfers to bachelor’s degree programs and the number of those earning other post-secondary credentials in fields where jobs are plentiful and wages are good. It’s that latter goal that some faculty members have challenged, arguing that City Colleges has become too focused on churning out certifications for jobs of limited opportunity. But college officials are equally adamant that nothing in the reforms stymies student choices—if anything, they say, those choices are now more informed and better guided.

So far, there is reason for optimism: The graduation rate has nearly doubled at the seven campuses since the overhaul began in 2010, the number of degrees awarded has climbed significantly and City Colleges has attracted the attention of the World Bank, which thinks its new model can be replicated elsewhere around the world. But the ultimate impact of the changes won’t be known for years—until it’s possible to see how many students reach the goals envisioned.

City Colleges’ makeover got its start in 2010, when then-Mayor Richard M. Daley signaled a serious overhaul by installing new leaders from the private sector and giving them two years to develop a plan that would “reinvent the system from top to bottom.” He recommended Martin Cabrera, a 39-year-old financier and founder of an investment bank, as the new chairman of the board of trustees. To run the sprawling system as chancellor, Daley brought on Cheryl Hyman, an executive at the electric utility ComEd. A native of Chicago’s West Side, Hyman is the perfect choice in many ways. She is a high school dropout who later graduated from City Colleges’ own Olive-Harvey College in 1993. She turned her associate degree into a bachelor’s in computer science at the Illinois Institute of Technology and climbed the ranks at ComEd while picking up two master’s degrees, including an MBA from Northwestern University.

She convened groups of faculty, staff, community leaders and outside experts to diagnose the City Colleges’ problems and offer solutions from within the state and around the country. She found that her system’s problems weren’t unique, but they ran deep: Just 7 percent of first-time students attending full time were completing a certificate or degree within two or three years, about three times below the national rate for similar institutions. About 80 percent of programs were graduating fewer than 45 people per entering class, and those programs weren’t tied to actual need in the regional economy. Some 54 percent of degree-seeking students were quitting in their first six months.

To Hyman, it was clear that the City Colleges honored the hallowed community college principle of providing access to all, but they weren’t using the vast information at their disposal to track and improve outcomes for all. “My goal became bigger than just City Colleges of Chicago: My goal became how can I shift the paradigm of community colleges nationally? How can I take City Colleges as an example and create an initiative that shows us how we can couple access with success?”


Chancellor Cheryl Hyman is working with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to boost completed student certifications of "economic value." (Kalle Eko)

In 2012, newly elected Mayor Rahm Emanuel put his own stamp on the overhaul with the announcement of plans that would effectively double down on the goal of boosting completed student certifications of “economic value.” He announced a “College to Careers” program to further revamp the occupational curriculum with direct input from employers, firmer relationships on the career services side and labor-market analysis of job needs. Under College to Careers, six of the seven campuses have taken on specializations within City Colleges’ occupational programming, each in an area where there is the potential for high job growth in the next decade. More than half of City Colleges’ $520 million capital plan is going to a new campus at Malcolm X College, the system’s center for training health professionals, and a new transportation, distribution and logistics center at Olive-Harvey College, which specializes in the transportation field.

City Colleges has set several goals it plans to achieve by 2018, including seeing degrees go up 37 percent a year and certifications jump 25 percent. The system is also gunning for 55 percent of its students to transfer to four-year schools (up from 42 percent) and 71 percent of those completing occupational certifications to have jobs in their areas of study (up from 60 percent).

Borrowing from Valencia College in Orlando, Fla., an award-winning school that graduates about half of full-time students in three years, City Colleges has developed model maps for all of its programs, laying out exact sequences of courses by semester. Even before students get a map, they are asked by an adviser to choose from among 10 focus areas, such as business and professional services, health care, and information technology. Advisers also determine whether the student intends to transfer to a four-year school. Each focus area comes with lists of the certifications that can be earned on the way to an associate or bachelor’s degree, and examples of jobs at each level. A sample for health professions starts with a nurse assistant earning $9 to $12 an hour, builds to basic certifications such as medical billing that can earn up to $17 an hour, then goes into advanced certificates and associate degrees offering up to $33 an hour, and finally bachelor’s programs at a four-year school. The document even gives the number of jobs expected to be available at each level annually.

It’s the clarity of those maps and the clear connection to phased, achievable outcomes that sets Chicago apart, says Davis Jenkins, a senior researcher at Columbia University’s Community College Research Center. “That is a completely different mindset, and you don’t see that much anywhere except in a few colleges across the country.”

City Colleges is rolling out those road maps for students this semester; in the months that follow, the schools will reinforce them with new scheduling and grouping initiatives. Instead of logging in online at the end of the semester to choose whichever classes are available the next time around, students will automatically be enrolled in the course that appears next on their maps. Whole program enrollment will remain the default option, but students will be able to select individual options manually. City Colleges will also start advancing students in the same program together as one group to generate mutual support.

The whole system is built on an increasingly popular idea called “stackable credentials,” in which students are presented with new thresholds of attainment throughout their college experience (each independently qualifying the candidate for increasingly higher-paying jobs). Previously, a certificate didn’t necessarily earn credit toward an associate degree. Daley College has never in its history offered a welding certificate for college credit. Now it will not only offer the certificate, but it will also link it to the backing of accrediting organizations so that it will acquire real industrial value.

But stackable credentials haven’t conclusively proven their worth. The organization Complete College America, which advocates for many of the ideas being tried in Chicago, concluded in 2010 that there wasn’t yet any evidence that students “actually are stacking short-term certificates and building them into longer-term certificates or degree. Moreover, it is not at all clear that these short-term programs, even if they are steppingstones to career qualifications, independently offer adequate labor market returns that will pay off for students.”

That conclusion encapsulates the concerns of many in academia as well as critics within the City Colleges. They feel that students are being pushed in potentially contradictory directions. They are being given a map that envisions an associate degree and then enrollment in a four-year college. But at the same time, those students are being urged to accept the modest job opportunities that emerge as they work through the curriculum step-by-step. Critics say the students will be powerfully tempted to accept the lower-level positions and give up on the higher degrees and the brighter futures that those may offer.

“I think you’re sacrificing the long-term interests in the student and the graduate to his or her short-term interest, and I don’t think that’s smart. I think that’s limiting,” says Stanley Katz, a Princeton professor who’s written about the push for greater post-secondary training.

Hyman challenges the contention that College to Careers consigns students to bad jobs. “People like to talk about vocational training like it’s a bad word,” she says. “We’re talking about nurses, we’re talking about high-skilled manufacturers, we’re talking about people who start their own businesses. Some of our students can’t afford to wait two years until they get a good-paying job.”

Perhaps most notable in Chicago’s overhaul is the level of private-sector involvement. Companies taking a hand in molding the workforce that comes out of community colleges is common enough around the country, but the scope of what is happening in Chicago is different. The City Colleges have formal partnerships with more than 100 corporations. The companies run the gamut from local hospitals to multinational corporations, and offer direct input into curriculum and on which credentials matter.

Emanuel says he wanted to take individual partnership models he’d seen in the past to a systemwide scale. Many of the schools were ready-made for specializations. Harold Washington College, located in the downtown Loop, was already the center of business programs. Malcolm X College, the system’s health sciences school, is in the heart of Chicago’s West Side medical district. Emanuel cites a successful partnership between Dow Chemical Company and Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, saying he saw no reason the same couldn’t be done at City Colleges. “[I thought] ‘Well, we’re going to do it sector-by-sector, industry-by-industry and align each with Chicago’s diversified economy,’” he says.

On the business side of City Colleges, that’s meant taking steps like creating a class focused on three Microsoft Office certifications, giving sales classes more of a focus on actually managing accounts (not just luring clients), and incorporating “soft skills” like communication and reading cues into more aspects of the curriculum. In health care, it’s meant considering an end to certificates in fields such as dialysis technology that industry partners already provide in-house, while building out programs that train community health workers in partnership with Rush University Medical Center, one of the biggest employers in Chicago. In manufacturing, it’s meant getting industry accreditations for students in welding and machining, and designing a broader manufacturing technology associate degree that allows students to specialize in one particular area. In every college it’s meant inviting industry representatives to speaking engagements, jobs fairs and stints as guest instructors. “It’s very hard to change entrenched public systems of any kind, to put a stake in the ground and say you’re really committed to it,” says Dr. Larry Goodman, Rush’s CEO. “But they’ve made it work.”

Chris covers health care for GOVERNING. An Ohio native with an interest in education, he set out for New Orleans with Teach For America after finishing a degree at Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism. He later covered government and politics at the Savannah Morning News and its South Carolina paper. He most recently covered North Carolina’s 2013 legislative session for the Associated Press.
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