Lt. Gov. Simon to colleges: Focus on the finish

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Math, transparency key to increasing completion rates


CHICAGO, IL – Lt. Governor Sheila Simon urged education leaders to adopt a reform package that aims to increase the number of Illinois community college students who graduate within three years of enrollment.

“Our request of community colleges is deceptively simple: Help more of your students finish what they start,” Simon said. “As a state, we must stay focused on the finish.”

 In a new report issued today by Simon, she states that four out of five recent high school graduates who enroll in Illinois community colleges do not complete a certificate or degree within three years.

“We’re doing a good job of getting all types of students into the doors of community colleges. 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,” she said.

The report argues one reason students take longer to graduate – or drop out altogether – is that they are not prepared for college-level work. Almost half of recent high school graduates test into remedial courses, and most of those incoming freshmen struggle with math, Simon said.

“We have more than 142,000 unfilled jobs in Illinois right now, but thousands of people are looking for work,” Simon said. “That doesn’t add up to a strong economy. We need to better prepare employees for the workforce, and that starts with sending students to college ready to learn.”

Simon serves as Governor Quinn’s point person on education reform. In her first year in office, she conducted a fact-finding tour of the state’s 48 community colleges to learn how the state can work with schools to increase completion rates and connect students to the workforce.

“Higher education is critical to ensuring that Illinois continues to compete and excel in the global economy,” Governor Pat Quinn said. “I applaud Lt. Governor Simon for visiting each and every one of our community colleges last year and producing this report. By putting our community colleges front and center and focusing on preparing our students for a 21st century workforce, we can create more jobs, attract more employers and continue to grow the economy in Illinois.”

A former law school professor at Southern Illinois University, Simon said she chose community colleges as her focus because they enroll more students than public universities in Illinois, but produce fewer graduates. Community colleges need to shift their focus to completion for the state to meet the demand for middle and highly skilled workers, she said.

Simon’s report to the Governor and General Assembly, released today in conjunction with her first address at the City Club of Chicago, outlines several reforms that could improve student success rates while using existing resources. To move forward successfully, Simon identified two critical areas for education in Illinois: improved math instruction and transparency.

“Lt. Governor Simon sent a strong message to the higher education system by taking the time to visit every community college in the state during her first year in office,” said Alexi Giannoulias, chairman of the Illinois Community College Board. “We will work with her to improve learning, build stronger ties to the business community and blur the lines between high school, community college and university.”


More Math

Illinois requires high school students to complete three years of math to earn a diploma. This means many incoming high school freshmen at community colleges have taken a year’s vacation from math – and it shows. More than one out of three recent high school graduates test into at least one remedial math course at Illinois community colleges, and some require several semesters of these developmental skills courses. 

The problem is that these remedial courses take up students’ time and money, but do not count toward degrees or certificates. The longer it takes for students to complete meaningful coursework, the more likely they are to drop out or incur debilitating debt.

Simon recommends a three-pronged math reform package: (1) High schools should voluntarily require four years of high school math; (2) high schools and community colleges should partner to offer dual credit mathematics courses to all high school juniors and seniors; and (3) community colleges should redesign remediation to embed skills development into credit-bearing courses.

She is asking the Illinois State Board of Education to begin tracking high schools which voluntarily require four years of math, and is seeking researchers to track if the added year reduces remedial needs.

“Our priority is to prepare students to succeed in college and careers, and we know that the skills businesses want from an employee and what is needed to be college ready are very similar,” said State Superintendent of Education Christopher A. Koch. “We’ve already adopted new college-ready learning standards so it only makes sense to also evaluate our high school graduation requirements to make sure they’re aligned with college expectations as well to give students a better chance to succeed after graduation.”


 Report Cards

For more than a decade, Illinois elementary and high schools have been required to publish annual school 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.

The state’s top education advisory body, the P-20 Council, has adopted a completion goal: 60 percent of working-age adults (25-64) holding a degree or certificate by 2025. The state is moving in the right direction. Illinois was at 41.3 percent in 2010, up from 40.8 percent in 2008, according to the Lumina Foundation’s analysis of census reports.

Beginning next year, community colleges should be more transparent about student success rates and progress toward the completion goal, Simon said. She proposes a two-page consumer report card be published by each college showing the number and percentage of students finishing courses, certificates, degrees 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,” said Miguel del Valle, chairman of the P-20 Council. “Annual college report cards can be an important tool in engaging students, educators and taxpayers in our pursuit of a highly educated workforce.”


Performance Funding

Simon said one of her recommendations is expected to be incorporated in the Fiscal Year 2013 budget. She is a member of the Performance Funding Steering Committee that is devising a system to tie a portion of state higher education funding to student success rates.

Currently, the funding mechanism for community colleges considers mid-term enrollment, rather than the number or proportion of students who pass a course or earn a credential. She favors a funding system that “focuses on the finish,” and says it should be phased in over time.

“The university and community college systems are working with Lt. Governor Simon to better measure and reward success at each of our unique institutions,” said George Reid, executive director of the Illinois Board of Higher Education and leader of the performance funding committee. “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.” 

Next Steps

 Simon said the next step is for her office to work with stakeholders to introduce legislation where needed and to work with higher education governing bodies on reforms at the administrative level. She expects bills to be introduced later this month when the General Assembly returns to Springfield.


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