Undoubtedly, when highly-skilled graduates enter the work force, everyone benefits. And that’s the aim of The City Colleges of Chicago, which are charging themselves with the task of providing companies with, quite simply, the perfect candidates.
To change the face of its curriculum and to better prepare its students to meet employers’ needs, Chicago’s community college system is undergoing a makeover. Gabriel Barrington, an uncertified welder studying at Richard J. Daley College on Chicago’s South Side, is just one of the 115,000 students that hopes to benefit from the system’s “reinvention.”
Barrington enrolled as soon as he read about about the program’s promise to not only teach him complex machining, but also to smooth a transfer to Illinois Institute of Technology, a four-year institution, for a bachelor’s degree. “As a welder, you see the stuff that comes off the machines and think, ‘Wow, I’d rather be a part of that.’” he told Governing. “There’s just such a wealth of materials and possibility.” Barrington, along with all of City Colleges of Chicago’s students, may be part of a wave of Chicago’s most talented job force yet.
Barrington has former mayor Richard M. Daley to thank for the welding education — a subject his college didn’t even teach four years ago. Daley initiated the top-to-bottom curriculum overhaul in 2010, based on the award-winning Valencia College in Orlando, Florida, which graduates nearly half of its full-time students in three years.
Daley tapped investment bank founder Martin Cabrera and City Colleges graduate-cum-ComEd executive Cheryl Hyman to create a blueprint. Their plan reads almost like a job market hack: The City Colleges have formal partnerships with more than 100 corporations, which give input into course sequences and selection. Advisers use this information to help students spin their education forward. They present 10 focus areas including health care and information technology at the start of school, each of which includes a set of certifications and job types. Then, academics advance somewhat on autopilot — students are automatically enrolled in courses of increasing difficulty with each semester. This kind of “stackable credential” system, which City Colleges is unveiling this semester, systematically qualifies a student for a higher pay grade with each course and directs them to a distinct job.
With the groundwork in place and much of it in practice, The City Colleges of Chicago has lofty expectations. It expects to see degrees go up 37 percent a year by 2018, and wants 55 percent of its students to transfer to four-year schools. If achieved, the city-school relationship will become more symbiotic; the job market has a bigger pool of qualified candidates from which to pick, and previously untrained or uneducated Chicagoans will learn a marketable and valuable skill.
The program isn’t without its detractors, though. A student like Barrington will seemingly hit a goldmine when he graduates, receiving a welding degree linked to accrediting organizations so that it will acquire real industrial value, but Complete College America (a non-profit) said in 2010 that it had yet to find evidence that students “actually are stacking short-term certificates and building them into longer-term certificates or degree.” Other critics, including faculty members, are concerned that the program will result in too many qualified applicants for a limited number of higher-level jobs.
Only time will tell if they’re right. In the meantime, the reinvention’s biggest proponents make a good point: That career-based education with a focus on achievement is never a bad thing. The proof is in the short-term results. Since the overhaul began in 2010, the graduation rate has nearly doubled at the seven campuses. “It’s very hard to change entrenched public systems of any kind, to put a stake in the ground and say you’re really committed to it,” says Dr. Larry Goodman, Rush’s CEO told Governing. “But they’ve made it work.”