Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Simon pitches plan to increase college graduation rates

By Jamey Dunn

A new policy paper from Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon focuses on making college more affordable and taking steps to increase graduation rates.

The state has adopted a goal set by President Barack Obama of 60 percent of working-age adult residents earning a college degree by 2020. In 2012, 41 percent of working age adults — those between the ages of 25 and 65 — held a degree. “For the ‘60 x 2025’ goal to become a reality, students must be ready for advanced study, must have access to high-quality post-secondary programs, must be able to afford college costs, and must persist through those programs to completion and credential attainment,” says the paper from Simon, who toured the state’s 12 public universities last fall.

 “We need to make sure that our high school students are ready for college and complete certificates and degrees on time and with less debt,” said Simon, whom Gov. Pat Quinn has dubbed his “point person” on education reform. “The return on educational investment is proven for graduates seeking living-wage jobs and a state seeking high-quality employers. College is worth it.” Graduation rates at Illinois’ public four-year universities vary greatly. According to data from the U.S. Department of Education, the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign had an 83 percent graduation rate between 2009 and 2010 for first-time, full-time students who attended for no more than six years. Illinois State University in Normal had the second best performance, with a 69 percent graduation rate. Meanwhile, Northeastern Illinois University had a rate of 20 percent, and the lowest performing school for graduation rates, Chicago State University, saw just 14 percent of students in that category graduate in 2009 and 2010.

Simon focused on the cuts to state funding for higher education and the tuition increases that followed. According to data from the Illinois Board of Higher Education cited in the report, state support of universities decreased by 27.6 percent between 1998 and 2013, and support of community colleges declined by 24 .9 percent during the same time frame. In the current fiscal year’s budget, funding for higher education was the lowest it has been in 10 years. In her white paper, Simon calls for Illinois to make higher education and financial aid to students funding priorities, “even in light of current financial constraints.”

She advocated dual-degree programs, which allow students to lock in tuition costs at a four-year university while they earn an associate's degree at a partnering community college. The degree would then transfer to the university, and under the state’s Truth in Tuition law, the student would pay the same tuition rates a freshmen at the university paid when he or she started in community college. The plan also calls for limiting most bachelor’s degrees to 120 credit hours and allowing students a chance to earn credit while taking remedial courses, which typically do not count toward their degrees. The paper calls for campuses to adopt  “one stop shops” for student services, a single location where students can access assistance, such as academic counseling, financial aid advisement and health care. The plan also outlines less sweeping measures, such as offering textbook rentals and online options for classroom materials and installment payment plans for tuition and fees.

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