Illinois Tops Nation In Rate Of Community College Students Earning Bachelor’s Degrees

College Students Graduating Graduation
Seth Wenig / File/AP
College Students Graduating Graduation
Seth Wenig / File/AP

Illinois Tops Nation In Rate Of Community College Students Earning Bachelor’s Degrees

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At Oakton Community College in the northwest suburbs, there’s a group of employees whose entire job is to get Oakton students to leave the school. 

Brian Bacon is one of them.

“We consider ourselves to be an institution where our students are primarily considering transfer eventually,” said Brian Bacon, a “transfer coordinator” at the Des Plaines two-year college. 

Bacon helps current Oakton students figure out how to use the community college as a springboard to eventually transfer somewhere else. Often, that’s to a four-year college or university where the student can earn a bachelor’s degree.

And it seems to be working. Illinois now leads the country in the rate of community college students who transfer to a four-year school and earn a bachelor’s degree in six years or less, according to new data from the National Student Clearinghouse, which tracks where students attend college nationally.

“There are many parents who want … their kids to go away to a four-year school right after high school and it is a great choice for a lot of students,” said Anne Brennan, assistant vice president for academic affairs and college transitions at Oakton Community College. “But there’s other families who say, you know, ‘that’s not the best choice.’” 

Making it from a two-year to a four-year college

As a self-described “transfer institution,” Oakton directs students toward courses that will help them move on to a four-year school, typically in math, writing, and science, and sociology or the fine arts. Sometimes, students start taking courses required for their intended major. The more help students get, officials say, the more likely is it that they’ll complete community college in two years and transfer. 

Oakton also signed on to a statewide agreement that tries to make transferring from two to four-year colleges or universities as easy as possible. The “Illinois Articulation Initiative” has been around for more than 25 years.

“It was about creating that solid foundation to help Illinoisans know that they wouldn’t have to retake coursework somewhere else,” said Stephanie Bernoteit, deputy director of academic affairs with the Illinois Board of Higher Education. Faculty from participating schools review course syllabi regularly to make sure courses meet an agreed-upon standard. If they do, then all schools involved will accept those credits. More than 100 colleges participate, including most community colleges, all public universities and many private colleges, including DePaul, Loyola, and Roosevelt universities.

There’s also a website called where Illinois students can plug in their courses to see which schools will take their credits.

All these efforts are adding up. According to this new data, 54 percent of students who entered community college in 2010 (the most recent data) and transferred in two years earned their four-year degree within six years of transferring.

This data doesn’t include students who took college level courses while they were still in high school. IBHE said if those students were included, the percentage of students transferring and graduating from a four-year school would be even higher. 

“The fact that more than half the students who get bachelor’s degrees have some transfer work in there and most of that transfer work comes from a community college has been this really quiet story that doesn’t really follow you and get talked about when you’re working,” said Brennan.

Challenges ahead

But the data also shows that Illinois, and the country, have more work to do. Only 35 percent of the 33,000 students who entered a two-year school in 2010 transferred to a four-year school. While half of those students eventually earned their bachelor’s, that amounts to just 18 percent of the 2010 cohort. That’s just 6,000 out of the original 33,000 students. 

Bernoteit of the Illinois Board of Higher Education said that’s a lot of money squandered along the way.

“One of those most expensive things a student can do is begin a college course of study, not complete, and not have ability to achieve the kind of employment opportunities that would’ve made that short time in school worthwhile.” Bernoteit said. “So we want to see every student who starts complete.”

Bernoteit suggested increasing state money for the Monetary Award Program, which provides grants for low-income students who attend approved Illinois colleges. She also advocated for additional help for adults who have some college credit and want to re-enter college to earn a degree.

Kate McGee covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @WBEZeducation and @McGeeReports.