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In Illinois, the focus is now on finishing

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Lt. Gov Sheila Simon outlines her proposal for reforming education in Illinois to increase the success of community college students.

​Illinois’ lieutentant governor, fresh off a tour of all 48 community colleges in the state, is calling on education leaders and lawmakers to adopt her proposed reforms—from closer ties with K-12, to public funding based on student success—in order to increase the number of state residents with postsecondary credentials.

On Thursday, Sheila Simon released a report that outlined the shortfalls, challenges and prospective solutions to help more community college students earn a certificate or degree, which she noted is critical to securing good jobs and to improving the state’s economy. At a press conference in Chicago, Simon noted there are more than 142,000 unfilled jobs in Illinois.

“Until that skills gap is closed, our state is at risk of losing quality employers who seek to locate in areas with a stronger talent pool,” she wrote in an open letter announcing the report to state lawmakers.

Increasing student success rates at community colleges in Illinois—or in any state—won’t be easy. In Illinois, about one in five students who began their studies as first-time, full-time students at a community college in fall 2007 graduated by summer 2010, according to the report.

Although there are myriad reasons for the low graduation rate, being unprepared for college-level work is at the base of the problems. As at community colleges across the country, many students attending Illinois community colleges must take developmental courses before they begin taking credit courses. Nearly half of community college freshmen are enrolled in at least one developmental course, with more than one-third falling short of college-readiness in math, according to the report.

Preparing for college

Simon’s proposal to tackle college preparedness has a multi-pronged approach, with includes closer ties with K-12 to ensure that students are taking challenging courses, to offering more dual-enrollment opportunities so students can earn college credits while still in high school. She called on state officials to mandate that high school students take four years of math rather than the current three-year requirement.

Simon’s report also includes promising practices that community colleges and their partners could adapt. For example, it highlighted Harper College’s collaboration with three feeder high school districts to gauge how well students are ready for college-level work. In 2010-11, more than 5,700 juniors among the three high schools took a standardized test to gauge their college-readiness in math—a 50 percent increase over the number of students who took the test the previous year. The assessments and follow-up advising with high school counselors have yielded results: more than 90 percent of high school seniors in all three districts enrolled in math in 2011-12, according to the report.

Harper College President Kenneth Ender, who attended the press briefing, said that he envisions his college’s relationship with its partner high schools evolving further. Students’ senior year in high school could be co-managed by the high school and community college, and together they could provide assessment and curriculum to help students not only prepare for college-level work, but to take college-credit courses.

“It would be great for students who need to catch up, and it would be great for students who want to speed up,” he said. 

Transparency—with caveats

Simon recommended “Four Steps to Focus on the Finish​” that are geared to help increase the number of state residents with college credentials from 41 percent to 60 by 2025. The lieutentant governor’s plan includes publishing an annual report card on student success rates and progress toward the completion goal. Each community college would provide the number and percentage of students finishing courses, certificates, degrees and transfers.                         

Simon noted that for more than a decade, Illinois elementary and high schools have been required to publish such report cards illustrating the proportion of students who meet grade-level skills. Not so for higher education institutions, and that should change as the state shifts to a focus on completion, Simon said.                

In addition, the lieutenant governor said that Illinois should shift from awarding funding to community college based on mid-term credit hours to include a completion component. She noted that 20 states—including Indiana, Ohio and Washington—already have performance-funding models underway or in development.

The publicly available information and the recommended performance-based funding would include caveats to ensure that certain characteristics of community colleges are factored in. For example, performance funding should:

  • Recognize that community colleges have open admissions and serve many at-risk students.
  • Allow community colleges to measure against their peers.
  • Be adjusted annually and allow colleges to collect baseline data and implement policy changes.

Ender said he welcomes the opportunity to provide data and supports the idea of some performance-based funding, provided—as is recommended in the report—such measures are not solely based on completion.

“It’s about progress, too,” he said, noting that students’ reaching certain milestones toward success should be included.

Simon said her office will now work with stakeholders to introduce legislation where it’s needed and to work with higher education governing bodies on reforms at the administrative level. She expects bills to be introduced later this month.

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