Higher ed officials look for more ways to keep kids in college
BY SANDRA GUY Higher-Education Reporter July 25, 2014 12:38PM
Updated: July 28, 2014 11:44AM
While employers bemoan a shortage of skilled job applicants, higher-education officials are trying to ensure students get into college and stay long enough to learn the skills for jobs going begging.
The issue was the focus of the “College Changes Everything” conference, held earlier this month at the Tinley Park Convention Center.
National and local education experts recommended solutions ranging from new ways for students to gain credit away from a campus, to teaching students “soft” skills such as networking and dressing for success.
One concern is that in Illinois, only 19.4 percent of community college students earn a degree or certificate within three years, said Jessica Besser-Rosenberg, director of research and communications for the Chicago-based One Million Degrees, a non-profit organization that works with primarily low-income, first-generation students to help them complete their degrees.
The national graduation rate is 20.4 percent, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics and the Illinois Community College Board.
On the other hand, experts point to positive trends, such as retailers and corporations increasingly offering in-house training, apprenticeship programs and tuition help — the most notable of the latter being Starbucks’ June 16 announcement that it will reimburse employees who enroll in an online university program — if the employee works an average of 20 hours a week.
The conference aimed to address not only the national debate over a shortage of workers trained in science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills, but also Illinois’ lagging-behind in its 10-year program, Illinois Public Agenda for College and Career Success.
The agenda aims for 60 percent of Illinois adults by 2025 to have a two- or four-year higher-education degree or a postsecondary credential “of marketable value.” The latter means getting certified for a skill such as welding or commercial truck driving. It’s called the 60 x 25 Goal.
The bottom line shows Illinois falling behind and failing to bridge educational divides:
The numbers of people in Illinois getting college degrees or postsecondary credentials are increasing, but not at a fast-enough rate to meet the 60 percent goal, said James L. Applegate, executive director of the Illinois Board of Higher Education.
The board is the state agency responsible for higher-education planning and coordination.
Stacey Delvecchio, engineering talent manager for Caterpillar Inc., said even though the world’s largest producer of mining and construction equipment operates its own “Caterpillar University,” known as “CatU,” to sharpen the skills of employees, dealers, suppliers and customers, there is a major need for new hires to have basic STEM skills from accredited programs.
“We want to make sure (new hires) are coming in with the basic requirements — knowing basic math and science, being able to measure machine parts and, for technicians, knowing how to read blueprints,” she said. “These skills are threaded throughout the job opportunities we’ve got, whether it’s for welding expertise or for design, research and manufacturing engineers.”
Caterpillar works with The Manufacturing Institute, a Washington, D.C. non-profit affiliate of the National Association of Manufacturers, to agree on accreditation standards that meet workforce needs.
“If it’s an accredited program, whether it’s online or bricks-and-mortar isn’t as important as the certificate,” Delvecchio said.
Veronica Castorena, a 21-year-old barista at Starbucks at 414 N. Orleans St. in Chicago’s River North neighborhood, is considering the company’s online-college offer so she can graduate on time in spring 2015 and pursue her intended career in music education.
Castorena, who sat first-chair trumpet at Dwight D. Eisenhower High School in south suburban Blue Island, started her studies at the VanderCook College of Music in the Bronzeville neighborhood.
Starbucks’ offer to pay for $10,000 in online courses at Arizona State University is “great,” she said.
“I can graduate on time and save money,” she said, adding that other Starbucks employees will be able to graduate who might have otherwise never considered higher education because they lacked the money or financial aid.
A host of retailers offer employees help with tuition, including Walmart, Home Depot and Walgreens, though some programs require employees to stay with the company for a certain period after they earn their degrees.
The Chicago-based One Million Degrees program chooses scholars — more than 200 this year — from among 11 regional colleges and community colleges for tuition reimbursement, an expenses stipend and one-on-one help getting through school.
Besser-Rosenberg said the program provides mentors, tutors and workshops so that the scholars learn “soft” skills such as job interviewing, dressing for success, email etiquette and conflict and time management.
One of the underlying goals is to help the students gain a “positive identity” and to feel that they “belong” in school and in the workforce, she said.
“It’s important that they feel they’re making the right changes, and that they deserve the jobs they’re getting,” Besser-Rosenberg said.
Marabella Moreno, a 24-year-old resident of the Hermosa neighborhood who was the first in her family to earn a degree, echoed the often-overlooked needs of many students. Moreno majored in biology and environmental studies at College of St. Benedict in Collegeville, Minn.
Some students have no idea that they qualify for a fee waiver when they apply to college, while others perceive “college” as four years at a university, rather than considering alternatives such as community-college programs, she said.
Moreno helps families and high-school students in her community figure out their higher-education options in her work as a member of the Illinois Student Assistance Commission’s ISACorps, a two-year program that deploys 85 recent college graduates throughout the state to help low-income and other students navigate the college-going and financial-aid process.
“I help students go through the entire process of researching colleges, understanding that the best college doesn’t necessarily mean the one with the highest price, and finding ways to finance their education,” said Moreno, a graduate of Prosser Career Academy in the Belmont Cragin neighborhood.
Students in low-income and first-generation families need that information more than ever, given the growing national controversy over whether for-profit colleges are improperly administering federal student financial aid.
On July 11, Corinthian Colleges announced it would sell or close its campuses after the U.S. Department of Education restricted its access to financial aid, alleging the school had misled investors, saddled students with high-cost loans and misled students about job-placement rates.
As for ISACorps’ work, Moreno said many students haven’t had access to basic information about higher education and financial aid.
“They’ll say, ‘I don’t want to leave my family,’ or ‘I don’t want to be in school for more than five years,’” she said. “We’ll research what they want to do for a career, find the average salary and employment rates after they graduate. We help them realize the big picture — and work to ultimately create a ‘college-going’ culture.”