Getting better by degrees
BY SUSAN DEMAR LAFFERTY and Susan Frick Carlman Sun-Times Media July 31, 2012 10:48PM
Darlyn Iglesia (left) and Solomiya Bazar, both of Naperville, fill out schedules as they get registered for classes at College of DuPage on Tuesday, July 31, 2012. | Jeff Cagle~For Sun-Times Media
Enrollment comparisons at local community colleges. The numbers are from recent spring semesters, with the first number representing the total student head count, and the second representing the number of full-time-equivalent students, based on credit hours:
College 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012
College of DuPage 29,229/14,002 28,566/14,573 28,890/15,791 28,211/15,003 28,322/14,782
Joliet Junior 13,397/7,686 14,713/8,615 16,140/9,746 16,379/9,701 16,079/9,461
Waubonsee [unavailable] 7,742/4,298 8,852/4,955 8,717/4,917 8,774/4,699
Source: Enrollment surveys
Percentages of first-time college students who graduated in 2010, the most recent
College of DuPage 13 percent
Joliet Jr. 12 percent
Waubonsee 21 percent
Source: Integrated Postsecondary
Education Data System
Updated: September 2, 2012 6:03AM
In a few short weeks, students will flock back to college campuses, including to area community colleges from Sugar Grove to Glen Ellyn to Joliet.
While officials at the local schools are pleased that enrollments for the most part have climbed the past few years — and they constantly work to further increase those numbers — they are part of a chorus that includes state officials and 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, wants to see graduation rates rise to 60 percent by 2020. Currently just four in ten 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.
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 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 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. “That’s a symbolic, but I think important, step in encouraging students to complete school,” said spokesman Jeff Noblitt.
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.
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.
Waubonsee is seeing some payoff already. The college 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 I can tell you that the numbers are looking very, very strong,” he said.
Joliet Junior College awarded 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,” said Susan Paddock, dean of enrollment management.
School officials said the economy was a key factor in students returning to college, but it also is the reason enrollments are dipping again.
Head counts at COD have fallen off over the past couple of years. Martin said the school is not alone in the downturn.
“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.
However, larger numbers of “traditional-age” students are signing up for COD’s classes 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.
The “3+1” collaborations COD has established with Benedictine and Lewis universities have been well received, Martin said. The offering enables COD students to continue their studies with one of the local four-year schools.
“These are all things that we’re doing that are going to cause us to start seeing increases in graduation rates as well,” said Martin, who reported that the partner schools have expanded their class sections to meet the added demand. “There is a lot of interest, because it allows an individual to earn a bachelors degree without having to leave College of DuPage, at a reduced cost.”
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.
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.
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?”
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.”