Five City Colleges of Chicago campuses join national community college network to boost completion

Young people wearing graduation caps and gowns point fingers up in the air.
Graduates of Truman College celebrate on May 1, 2022, at Wintrust Arena during the City Colleges of Chicago commencement ceremony for associate degree earners. (Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune / Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

Five City Colleges of Chicago campuses will get coveted national help in reaching a key goal: boosting the number of Black, Latino, indigenous, and low-income students who go on to earn a degree or other credential. 

City Colleges announced Wednesday that five of its seven campuses will join Achieving the Dream, a network of 300 community colleges across the country that offers its leaders free coaching, planning, and other support as they pursue more equitable student outcomes. 

The group seeks to attack a persistent issue: While two-year colleges are seen as key economic mobility engines for underrepresented youth, most community college students leave campus without earning a degree — and these outcomes vary starkly by race and income.

The timing could not be better as the City Colleges system emerges from a pandemic that tested community college students and caused enrollments to plunge here and nationally, said Veronica Herrero, the institution’s chief of staff and strategy.

City Colleges touted increased enrollment last fall that outpaced a modest statewide rebound from the dramatic pandemic-related plunge in two-year college enrollment. Still, at roughly 34,800 students, enrollment remains well below pre-COVID levels, when it stood at more than 45,000. 

Herrero said overall, the college system held fairly steady on key student outcomes despite the pandemic’s disruption, and retention rates ticked up this year. But much work remains. The system’s three-year graduation rate has improved significantly in the past decade, but it remains at 25% or lower on most campuses. And racial gaps persist. At Malcolm X College, for instance, 11% of Black students who started in 2018 graduated in three years, while 22% of white students and 30% of Asian students did, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. At Harold Washington, 14% of Black students graduated, while 33% of white students and 35% of Asian students did. 

“Now is the time for our colleges to look up and say, ‘What are other like-minded colleges doing?’” Herrero said. “This kind of change takes time, and it takes perspective.”

Kennedy-King College, Malcolm X College, Olive-Harvey College, Harold Washington College, and Wilbur Wright College — all City College campuses that met the network’s eligibility requirements, such as having a student body that’s at least 45% Black, Latino or indigenous — will join five other campuses from across the country for a three-year program. 

The initiative is partially supported by a $20 million grant from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott.

In recent years, City Colleges has pushed to boost completion rates and address significant racial gaps, Herrero said. The colleges adopted a data system that allows campus academic advisers, faculty, and others to better track student progress, and joined the Caring Campus Initiative, a partnership aimed at helping community colleges improve campus climate and student engagement, she said. 

The pandemic hit the institution hard, but it didn’t detract from that focus, Herrero said. 

“We’ve made headway; there is momentum,” Herrero said. “This new partnership will really help us accelerate this work.”

She said being able to compare notes and strategize jointly with other community colleges in the Achieving the Dream network will be invaluable as the system continues to pursue a central target: a 55% competition rate across student groups by 2032.

Monica Parish Trent, chief program and network officer at Achieving the Dream, said more than 100 institutions from across the country were invited to apply to be part of the new cohort. 

“It is unusual to select so many institutions from one community,” she said, “but the City College of Chicago institutions have been deeply engaged in important equity work. They showed a strong commitment to working with Achieving the Dream to strengthen that work.”

Mila Koumpilova is Chalkbeat Chicago’s senior reporter covering Chicago Public Schools. Contact Mila at mkoumpilova@chalkbeat.org.

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