Mastering the art of storytelling to drive change.

Bridging Education Gaps

06 / 17 / 2007

John W. Fountain walks the walk. The successful author, University of Illinois professor and former New York Times correspondent who grew up in Chicago is also a Wilbur Wright Community College graduate.

So earlier this month, when Fountain told a group of community college students that, “The hope I found was at the City Colleges of Chicago,” his words carried the power of living proof.

In 1901, America’s very first community college was established in Joliet. A century later, 60 percent of all undergraduates in our state attend community colleges — a proud system that has helped to create and retain more than

135,000 Illinois jobs in the last
five years through economic development initiatives.

Encouraging numbers, but the Illinois Community College Board reports a 43 percent graduation and transfer rate among community college students, and it’s one of the reasons why our state economy faces serious critical skills shortages in health care, manufacturing, education and transportation.

Of course, there are substantive reasons why community college graduation rates aren’t higher. Financial challenges continue to be an obstacle for thousands of students, and so does the need for academic remediation. ACT reports that fewer than half of high school graduates are ready for college-level math and science.

Definitely daunting barriers, but they are not deal-breakers. The One Million Degrees scholarship program (formerly Illinois Education Foundation) is proving that when we work together to attack both of these problems simultaneously, we can increase graduation rates exponentially. The foundation provides students with last-dollar scholarship funding as well as comprehensive academic support services.

And the early results are in: a 78 percent re-enrollment rate over the last four semesters.

A bipartisan coalition of government, business and education leaders in Illinois have flocked to this public/private partnership at the foundation, but every Illinoisan can participate. Whether you volunteer to mentor a student, work as a tutor, or help fund a scholar, you’ll be empowering individuals while also strengthening our state economy.

The students Fountain spoke to were foundation scholars attending a year-end event to celebrate their 97 percent re-enrollment rate this fall at the City Colleges of Chicago. It’s proof positive that with the right combination of support, every student has a real shot at fulfilling his or her full potential.

Michael B. Golden & David Scherer

Cofounders, One Million Degrees