Yessica Roman was managing a bakery when she decided to pursue her dream to work in medicine.
She enrolled at Malcolm X College, one of the seven City Colleges of Chicago, to earn a medical assistant certificate. It was there she was connected to an externship at Northwestern’s integrative medicine program, where she got four weeks of on-the-job training.
And just a few weeks after graduating, she landed a job.
Roman said the hands-on education in a new $250 million facility — including the school’s new, state-of-the-art virtual hospital — gave her the confidence she needed.
“I was familiar with everything, so it was really easy to just jump into action,” Roman said on her lunch break one day this month.
Roman’s path is exactly what Mayor Rahm Emanuel had in mind when he set out to remake the city’s beleaguered community college system eight years ago.
When he entered office, City Colleges of Chicago’s systemwide graduation rate was 7 percent, nearly three times below the state average. Few local businesses would consider employing City Colleges graduates.
The mayor said the degree didn’t have the value it should. He wanted to change that.
“Today we charge our City Colleges with a new mission: To train the workforce of today for the jobs of tomorrow,” Emanuel said during an Economic Club of Chicago speech in December 2011.
Under Emanuel’s “Reinvention” plan, each City College would become a “center of excellence” in a particular field.
At Malcolm X College on the Near West Side, it would be health care. Olive-Harvey on the Far South Side would focus on transportation, distribution, and logistics. Both schools would get new facilities along with a new manufacturing center at Richard J. Daley College and a satellite campus for Malcolm X, for a total investment of $560 million. The system set ambitious five-year goals, aiming to boost everything from graduation to retention rates.
Eight years later, City Colleges boasts that students are succeeding at record levels. And many people say Emanuel is leaving the City Colleges in better shape for Chicago’s next mayor, who will take over in May.
But Emanuel’s successor will also confront a major enrollment drop — it’s down 32 percent since 2010. Increasing those numbers is one of several goals the remade colleges were not on track to meet by the end of last year. Final data from 2018 are not yet available. And the rollout of the mayor’s Reinvention plan was panned by many faculty. Their union had set a strike date for Feb. 4 after negotiating fruitlessly for months but came to a tentative contract deal over the weekend.
“Instead of bolstering each community college to make it more accessible, you’re creating a two-city system,” said Tony Johnston, president of the Cook County College Teachers Union.
Signs of progress, declining enrollment
At the core of the City Colleges Reinvention plan was consolidating programs scattered across the seven campuses, putting one at each location.
And City Colleges has done it, and there are signs of progress.
More students are transferring to four-year schools annually. The graduation rate has more than tripled, though a Better Government Association report found City Colleges lowered some standards to boost those numbers. Twenty employers, including Aon and Accenture, have started apprenticeship programs for 400 students.
But, overall, fewer students are enrolling.
Since 2010, enrollment has dropped by 32 percent — that’s 34,000 fewer students taking classes for credit, as well as adults taking English as a Second Language classes.
All seven colleges have seen enrollment declines. At Kennedy-King in Englewood, enrollment is down 56 percent. Olive-Harvey has seen a 41 percent decline. And Truman College on the North Side has lost 39 percent of its students.
These declines come even as the mayor incentivized students to attend City Colleges by offering academically strong Chicago Public Schools graduates free community college tuition.
There are many explanations for a drop in enrollment. College enrollment typically goes down when the economy is good and people — especially adult students — decide to work instead. This year, public two-year colleges saw a 3 percent decline overall, according to the National Student Clearinghouse.
Also, Chicago’s population is declining and the recent 2016 state budget impasse didn’t help.
But for City College faculty, Reinvention also played a significant role. They said consolidating programs at one location limited students’ access. The plan, some faculty said, also took the system away from its original mission: serving every one, at any level.
“We meet the needs of low income, working-class neighborhoods,” Johnston said. “Without us they are forced to either go into job market without many job skills and languish or they’re forced take out loans to go to other places.”
When programs that used to be down the block were moved across the city, professors said many students couldn’t follow them.
“A student that’s around the Olive-Harvey area simply cannot travel to Wright (College) in an effective way, especially like most of our students who have family and job obligations,” Johnston said.
He points to enrollment in Malcolm X’s nursing program as proof. Nursing enrollment dropped 70 percent between 2010 and 2018, from 1,218 to 376 students. Overall, enrollment dropped by 29 percent at Malcolm X, despite a new $250 million campus.
At Truman College, chemistry professor Mohamed El-Maazawi remembers a thriving nursing program. But since it moved to Malcolm X his classes have gotten smaller. Instead of following the nursing program to the Near West Side, some students told him they’ve stopped going. Some have transferred to more expensive four-year schools. He said Reinvention made City Colleges forget who community colleges are supposed to serve.
“You deprive people the accessibility part of being a community college,” he said.
When City Colleges changed its tuition structure to incentivize more full time students, faculty revolted. The change made it more expensive for part-time students who often have full-time jobs and families. City College leaders have since reversed this change.
The pushback culminated in a vote of no confidence in former Chancellor Cheryl Hyman before she resigned in 2016.
At that board meeting, Harold Washington professor Jenny Armendarez told the board the vote was because the administration had forgotten City College’s underlying mission to educate all citizens.
“Actions taken by this district administration are counter to that mission,” she said. “Closing programs, limiting opportunities for students based on where they live, and raising tuition for our most vulnerable populations.”
Paula Wolff chaired the City Colleges Board of Trustees during the Reinvention period. While she’s generally supportive of the changes, she said the rollout could have been better.
“One of the foundations of Reinvention was the flaws and problems in the existing system,” Wolff said. “The emphasis on that was very disheartening to a lot of people who had been there for a long time and felt strongly about how important City Colleges were and how hard people had tried.”
All of the sudden, faculty who were working in an under-recoursed, old-fashioned system were told they’d failed students.
Resistance has continued. The faculty union was gearing up for a strike in early February if a contract wasn’t negotiated. They came to a tentative agreement with City Colleges over the weekend. But many faculty remain angry with City Colleges administration. One of their demands was more involvement in decisions affecting the future of the colleges.
Access and quality
Emanuel defended the Reinvention changes. He said local companies are more open to hiring graduates.
“They're comfortable hiring people who put the names of those schools on their resume,” Emanuel said.
If students are not traveling long distances to attend programs, Emanuel said that’s something for the chancellor to examine. At the end of the day, he said, the way City Colleges worked eight years ago was not a successful model.
“Middle class families are coming into the community college system, working class families are coming in, and they’re entrusting their future to it in a way they never did before,” Emanuel said.
Current City Colleges Chancellor Juan Salgado said there are too many factors to determine what exactly has led to the enrollment decline. But he acknowledges Reinvention could have played a role.
“We as a system have been more focused on quality than we have on access,” Salgado said. “But from my perspective we’re a stronger system today.”
Salgado said the next step is to increase access as long as it doesn’t sacrifice quality. He said access is important because the next decade is going to be critical for Chicago’s future.
“Will we be a city that’s truly inclusive,” he asked, “where the people that are here today have tremendous opportunity and buy a home and set up roots in our city, or are they not?”
Salgado said City Colleges is the place where people can find that opportunity. But business and industry, universities, and the K-12 system need to be invested, he said.
What’s next for City Colleges?
This month, Emanuel and other city political and education leaders watched a robotic machine cut the ribbon on Daley College’s new advanced manufacturing training center. This is one of the four major facilities built under Reinvention.
The mayor took it as a time to reflect on his work with City Colleges.
“What we’ve done for our students and the adults many who are both working and studying … is make their education more relevant to their future success and careers,” he said. “We’ve transformed the education that opens doors rather than shut them.”
Many people agree.
“That infrastructure just was not there eight years ago,” said Kyle Westbrook of the Partnership for College Completion, a local nonprofit.
But an improved City Colleges is still not on track to meet many of the goals set five years ago, according to the most recent data from 2017.
The student retention rate is down and, with the enrollment decline, City Colleges is awarding fewer degrees and certificates than anticipated.
That’s on top of the 32 percent total enrollment drop the system must grapple with.
This is what Chicago’s current mayor will leave behind — and what the winner of the 2019 mayoral election will confront.
Kate McGee covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @WBEZeducation and @McGeeReports.