COVER STORY: Second City Overhaul
Photo courtesy City Colleges of Chicago
Second City Overhaul
City Colleges of Chicago Launches
Latest Phase of ‘Reinvention’
By Paul Bradley
When Cheryl L. Hyman, chancellor of the City Colleges of Chicago, stood before a group of city movers and shakers one recent Monday afternoon, she came as the bearer of good news.
The setting was a downtown Chicago restaurant. The audience was the prestigious City Club of Chicago. She was introduced to the group by her chief supporter, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. She was armed with statistics that would make the influential group of businessmen and political leaders smile.
Since the college embarked on its Reinvention initiative in 2010, the college has made some remarkable strides in important educational metrics, Hyman said. Graduation rates? Up by 71 percent. Degrees awarded? Up by 80 percent. Overall enrollment? A 15 percent increase. The recent graduating class, some 4,000 strong, was the college’s largest ever.
“The picture today for the City Colleges of Chicago is brighter, but we still have a long way to go,” she said.
It was a far cry from when Hyman addressed club members three years ago after she left her job as a vice president at Commonwealth Edison Co., with no experience in the academic world, to head a system of seven colleges, about 120,000 students and a reputation as an underachieving system.
City Colleges of Chicago in 2018
The City Colleges of Chicago has released a five-year strategic plan full of ambitious goals designed to build on progress the institution has made in recent years. Here are some of the goals included in the plan:
Source: City Colleges of Chicago
ON THE RISE
Since the City Colleges of Chicago launched its Reinvention initiative in 2010, the colleges have experienced an upward trend in several statistical categories:
Graduation Rate 71%
Degrees Awarded 80%
Total Awards 21%
COMMUNITY COLLEGE FOR CREDIT ENROLLMENT TRENDS, 2010-13
City Colleges 15%
Source: City Colleges of Chicago
“We were underperforming by any measure,” she said.
The graduation rate has increased to 11 percent under Hyman’s leadership, but she was not standing before the sold-out City Club audience to tout her success. Rather, she was launching the next phase of the remaking of one of the country’s largest community college systems, a five-year blueprint replete with ambitious goals and benchmarks.
The strategic plan seeks to build on the gains made since the 2010 Reinvention and its companion College to Careers program, the latter of which has become one of Emanuel’s signature initiatives.
“We’ve always had a robust community college system,” Emanuel said to the City Club. “More people attend our community colleges than our four major universities combined. Yet it was never a focus.”
It is now. In an interview, Hyman said, “This five-year plan is the natural next step in what we’re trying to do. I think we can build a best-in-class community college.”
“We’ve been able to do some things, but the next five years will be crucial.”
For Hyman, improving the City Colleges of Chicago is a mission both personal and professional. Her personal story is one of perseverance against long odds. She once was a homeless high school dropout whose parents struggled with drug and alcohol addiction. With the help of her grandmother, she righted herself, graduating from high school at age 19 and enrolled in Olive-Harvey College, one of the schools she now oversees as chancellor. She earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science from the Illinois Institute of Technology and later earned two master’s degrees.
“People ask me why I left a high-paying job in the corporate world to take on this job,” she said. “I tell them I moved from a career to a calling.”
Her own community college experience is never far from her mind. She often says she wants the colleges to help a new generation of students break free from a cycle of poverty and dysfunction, just as they helped her do the same thing.
“I am here to make sure that all our students and all our institutions break free of the mentality of excuses, low expectations and realize their true potential,” she said.
So it’s not surprising that the five-year plan, developed over the course of 18 months of study and analysis, is full of ambitious goals. It establishes five-year targets on a number of critical measures of student success – from enrollment and retention to completion and employment. They include:
- The number of degrees awarded annually will increase nearly 40 percent;
- The number ofcertificatesawarded will increase by more than 15 percent;
- The graduation rate willbe at more than 20 percent;
- More than two-thirds of students in occupational programs will be employed in their area of training;
- More than half ofstudents will transfer to four-year institutions following graduation.
The goals are specific by design, Hyman said.
“When you set a goal that has a hard target attached, you’re more likely to achieve it,” she said. “You’re accountable in a very real way.”
The work underway at City Colleges of Chicago is winning wide notice. Complete College America (Hyman sits on the group’s board) has praised the new emphasis on moving students through remedial classes faster and creating clear pathways from enrollment to degree.
In April, a 15-member delegation from the World Bank, the international development agency, visited Chicago to learn more about the College to Careers program. That was followed by a web-based presentation that reached World Bank employees from around the world.
The College to Careers program gives each college in the system a specific vocational mission: Wilbur Wright College, for example, is focusing on information technology; Richard J. Daley College on high-tech manufacturing; Kennedy-King College on preparing talent for jobs in the culinary and hospitality trades.
College to Careers is designed to build strong connections between students and high-growth industries such as transportation, healthcare and information technology. It’s overarching goal is to increase the number of students earning credentials with economic value, or to allow transfer to a four-year university.
Working with more than 100 industry partners, colleges are rewriting curriculum as part of College to Careers. The college is also investing millions of dollars in the College to Careers program. A $42 million, 130,000-square-foot transportation, distribution and logistics facility will open in 2015 at Olive-Harvey College on the city’s South Side. Malcolm X College, on the West Side, is getting a new $250 million campus with modern classrooms, simulation labs and a virtual hospital to support its health sciences specialization.
The makeover is not without its critics. Some faculty members have complained that transformation is jeopardizing the system’s mission of offering an affordable and accessible path to higher education for working people, minorities and immigrants. City Colleges’ enrollment is 82 percent minority, and one-third of its students live in poverty. Some 90 percent of incoming students need remediation.
Hyman defused some of the criticism by involving faculty and staff in the Reinvention effort, giving them a stake in the overhaul. Some faculty members were given sabbaticals to work on task forces shaping the five-year plan. Hyman estimates that 100 faculty members put in 65,000 work hours during the 18 months the plan was being developed.
Some critics question whether the college’s emphasis on vocational skills will leave students without important skills such as critical reasoning, collaboration and problem-solving.
“It’s a false dichotomy,” she said. “It’s not either-or. A nurse needs to know science, but also needs to communicate with that patient. Technical training and liberal arts have to be married, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”