Mastering the art of storytelling to drive change.

One Million Degrees of difference

MEDIUM, 05 / 20 / 2019

I’d like to introduce you to a few people. And then I’d like to explain why.

In May of 2019, Kennedy-King College valedictorian Cindy Alvarez speaks to her fellow One Million Degrees Scholars and supporters.


Three years ago, Cindy Alvarez was a mother of five teenagers with a high school diploma. The thought of starting community college in her mid-30s was terrifying. Two weeks ago, Cindy gave the keynote speech at the One Million Degrees Gala in Chicago — the proud valedictorian of Truman College.


In June of 2016, Jarrett Adams shares his story of success with his One Million Degrees family at the 10th Annual OMD Gala.


Jarrett Adams survived the nightmare of being wrongly convicted and imprisoned for nine years. Today Jarrett is a graduate of South Suburban Community College — and a Loyola Law School graduate. He owns his own firm and was named the National Defender Investigator of the Year for his work on a clemency petition granted by President Obama. Jarrett always comes back to One Million Degrees to meet with and coach the scholars who want to follow in his footsteps.


Suzette Anderson received the 2019 Scholar of the Year Award at the One Million Degrees Scholar Appreciation Night at Malcolm X College on Chicago’s Near West Side.


At 47, Suzette Anderson was clocking in at three jobs and sleeping three hours a night while she worked toward her GED. Today, she’s an Honor Roll student at Olive Harvey College and was just crowned OMD Scholar of the Year. In her speech last week, Suzette said:


“I joined One Million Degrees for the scholarship money, but after my first Scholar Development Session, I knew that I was staying for the family.”

Her fellow scholars nodded, and a few minutes later, stood and applauded.

It should be obvious that in addition to community college success, what these three people hold in common is their connection to the One Million Degrees scholarship program. At OMD, we view each of these stories as special — but not unique. We know, empirically, that so many more students can achieve these very same successes. But not alone.

As a whole, the world of community college has been under-resourced, underrated and under-appreciated for a very long time. CC students are not perceived as the glamorous kids going off to big, beautiful campuses at four-year universities — because they’re not. Yet nearly half of the students in the United States attend community college.

A great many CC students face challenges that make going to school more akin to an obstacle course. They are often low-income. They are often in need of remedial work before they can earn credits. They are often first-generation college students. Many are working parents with childcare and transportation issues to navigate daily. All of this is to say that they have started their college careers in community college for a reason; often more than one.

Yet these very same students are no less capable of achieving extraordinary things for themselves and for their country. In fact, the paths that they travel in some ways make them the strongest among us. Grit grows into fortitude.

In 2006, a small group of us in Chicago deeply believed in the potential of these students. What we could not believe was that while 64% of college students in Illinois were attending community college — and failing out at a staggering rate — there was not a single private non-profit program providing them support.

We knew that these students needed help, just as we all do along our life journeys.

We launched the One Million Degrees scholarship program that year. The word “scholarship” implies money, and while we provided last-dollar gap tuition funding for our students, that was just the beginning.

OMD created a model that took a 360-degree view of our scholars. We weaved together academic advising, individual coaching, professional development, and paid tutoring if requested or required due to falling GPAs.

Accountability is a central feature of the OMD Scholarship. We set clear expectations that students need to meet and they sign a contract. Stipends are paid out throughout the year, as they show that they are attending class and student events — which are mandatory.

The components of the program described above are structural in nature, but there’s more to OMD than that. There is a personal connection that all of our staff, coaches and scholars feel every day. For many of our scholars, it is the first time they have had someone on their side. Someone looking over their shoulder to hold them accountable. Someone to believe in them — to care.

If all of that sounds a bit gooey, I understand. But I used the word empirical earlier for a reason. This past year at OMD, we engaged the University of Chicago Poverty Lab to conduct a random control trial study to evaluate the impact of the OMD program. In March of 2019, they reported out their earliest results:

“the offer of a spot in the OMD program leads to a 7 to 9 percent increase in college enrollment, a 13 percent increase in full time enrollment, an 11 percent increase in persistence to spring term, and a 16 percent increase in full-time persistence. For individuals that took up the offer of the program, effects were substantially larger — a 23 to 27 percent increase in enrollment, a 35 percent increase in full-time enrollment, a 35 percent increase in persistence, and a 47 percent increase in full-time persistence.”

Naturally, the OMD team was thrilled to receive these results. And we just celebrated them with the Mayor of Chicago and our entire scholarship community at OMD’s 12th Annual Food + Wine Tasting Gala.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot (center) celebrates One Million Degrees success at the 12th Annual OMD Food +Wine Tasting on May 31, 2019.


The celebration is now over. We’re on to bigger things, and chief among them is to communicate to the world that America’s community colleges and their students can no longer be given shorter shrift than any other college in our country. CC’s need resources — in their administrations, professional staff and in support programs like OMD that have been proven to work.

Students who earn associate’s degrees will increase their lifetime income by more than 30 percent. They will work, earn, support families, pay taxes and contribute great things to our society.

Conversely, the difference in the likelihood of imprisonment between Americans with only a high school diploma versus a college degree falls from 21 percent to six percent. Think about that.

These are cold hard facts collected from decades of research. But we can warm them up and turn them into success by placing more focus, more respect and more resources onto the hard-working students who just want a chance — and the programs that are already helping them to make the very most of their lives.

What started with six people in a borrowed board room on a Thursday in November 13 years ago has turned into a full-fledged community of support and success. Our original class of 23 scholars has grown to 925.

It’s a nice increase, thanks to the generous contributions of time, money and caring from so many generous people, and the incredibly hard work of OMD scholars and staff.

But it’s not enough. Not even close. This is a wake-up call, of the very best kind. It is a chance to lift up a generation of students, make them job ready for the critical skills shortage areas that we know exist and rebuild our country. Together.

We now know what works. So let’s get to work.