Guest Commentary | From birth to career, Illinois students deserve equitable, adequate education

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January 31, 2021

By By Robin Steans, April Janney, Mimi Rodman, Kyle Westbrook and Diana Mendley Rauner - The News Gazzette

COVID-19 has upended the lives and education of children and young people throughout Illinois. As we enter 2021, we will need new ways of thinking and working to ensure our state's education system emerges from the pandemic able to serve kids better and more equitably.

As a first step, state funding and policies must extend beyond traditional silos — preschool, K-12 and higher education — and instead address our educational system as a single, interconnected journey that provides equitably and adequately for our students at every step.

All children and youth in Illinois deserve a high-quality education regardless of their race/ethnicity, ZIP code or family income. We know quality experiences, from birth through college, make a dramatic difference in one's success in school, career and life. Beyond this, a well-educated citizenry and workforce is vital for Illinois' economy, now more than ever.

Illinois has made significant strides in recent years in funding education. In K-12, the Evidence-Based Funding for Student Success Act has made Illinois a national leader. The new formula equitably distributes new state dollars each year, prioritizing the state's most underfunded districts. In early-childhood education and care, Gov. J.B. Pritzker's Early Childhood Funding Commission is poised to release recommendations that promise to illuminate a path to a more coordinated and equitable system of funding and governance.

In higher education, the Illinois Board of Higher Education and advocates are using data to expose barriers to college access and affordability for Illinois students

and are committed to redesigning and implementing an equitable, adequate funding structure going forward. While these gains are encouraging, they depend, in turn, on the state growing its investment in early childhood, public schools and higher education. Our educational investments benefit, in turn, on making access to stable housing, health care and nutrition a priority.

The state's push for equity is critical because the hard truth is Illinois' programs and schools do not provide equal access and quality for all children. Opportunity gaps start early and persist by race/ethnicity, income, home language and geography. Fewer than 1 in 3 kindergartners enters school "ready to learn," and only

35 percent of fourth-graders are proficient in reading.

While 85 percent of students graduate high school, only 53 percent of students go on to college. Despite the fact that the majority of employers need employees with more than a high school diploma, only a little more than half of Illinois residents hold a college degree or postsecondary credential.

Facing lean state budgets in recent years, funding for child care and early-education programs along with higher education has remained far from the levels needed and in some cases has been repeatedly cut or deprioritized.

Chronic underfunding threatens child development and stands in the way of young adults' college and career success. Worse, these actions disproportionately affect our low-income communities and communities of color.

Even before COVID-19, in early childhood, young children across the state lacked access to high-quality and affordable services. Many pockets of the state had and continue to have "child care deserts," and the industry struggles to recruit and retain a workforce that earns near-poverty-level wages.

Illinois' higher-education sector has been underfunded for a decade, leaving institutions no choice but to shut down programs, raise tuition and rely on out-of-state students' tuition. These practices have priced many Illinois students out of the market or decreased the number of opportunities available.

By no means left unscathed, prior to the passage of evidence-based funding in 2017, the K-12 public education system weathered years of deep cuts, as the practice of across-the-board reductions known as "proration" resulted in the largest losses of state funding for the state's highest-need school districts. While evidence-based funding has significantly bolstered K-12 funding, and done so with a strong equity focus, we still have a long way to go.

While the federal government has provided important short-term funding as a stopgap to help weather the current storm, the state has a critical role to play to ensure children and youth have equitable and adequate funding moving forward. That responsibility will be complicated by serious and ongoing fiscal challenges that have been exacerbated by a devastating health crisis.

As we plan for recovery and work to build a strong and healthy educational ecosystem, we hope and expect that the state will avoid supporting one part of the education continuum by slashing budgets in another part. This practice is misguided on its face, as students cannot develop and thrive without a strong overall system that will see them through from birth to career.

We see a future where all children have access to high-quality opportunities that will propel them through life. To achieve this, children from birth through college need policy makers and education partners to stand together for comprehensive and fair solutions so they can reach their full potential. The brighter their futures, the stronger our families and economy will be.


Robin Steans is president of Advance Illinois, April Janney is acting president and CEO of Illinois Action for Children, Mimi Rodman is executive director of Stand for Children Illinois, Kyle Westbrook is executive director of Partnership for College Completion and Diana Mendley Rauner, Ph.D., is president of Start Early.

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COVID-19 and Higher Ed: Students Face Challenges Applying, Paying for College

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December 20, 2020

By Erica Gunderson - WTTW News

In any year, applying for college can be a stressful time for high school students. But like so many other things this year, the pandemic has made the application process even more uncertain and difficult.

"The dual pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism do not change this fact for them — it's just another barrier to overcome, like all of the others they've navigated around and through their entire lives," said Jeffery Beckham Jr., interim CEO of Chicago Scholars Foundation, which helps students from low-income communities.

While colleges grapple with evaluating applicants, financially disadvantaged students are struggling to figure out how to pay for college in a devastated economy. That struggle is reflected in the figures from a recent report showing that undergrad enrollment dropped by 3.6% this year. The downturn is in line with a larger trend, particularly among Black students.

Kyle Westbrook, executive director of the Partnership for College Completion, cites that report from the National Student Clearinghouse.

"Early data … shows an overall decline in college enrollment of 4% freshmen enrollment in community colleges is down approximately 22%. Freshmen enrollment at public universities and private nonprofit colleges is down 14% and 12%, respectively. Enrollment declines have been steepest among students identifying as American Indian and Black students, 11% and 8%, respectively."

To help aspiring college students manage the flood of information, Westbrook says the PCC developed a website aggregating data on how Illinois colleges and universities are addressing the pandemic. It's called Illinois Colleges Forward.

The pandemic accelerated a move to "test-blind admissions" — admission decisions not based on standardized test scores — at some colleges. Prior to the pandemic, Northern Illinois University and Southern Illinois University Carbondale had adopted test-blind admissions. Since the pandemic started, all Illinois public universities have adopted the same policy.

Beckham sees potential for a silver lining in these sorts of policy changes.

"Colleges have had to respond to the fact that many students weren't even able to sit for the SAT or ACT by the time they submitted their applications … this year has also drastically opened-up access to resources in the college process with everything moving online," Beckham said. "Virtual campus tours are now becoming the norm instead of in-person visits reserved only for those who have the means to fund them. In general, colleges have had to make more information more accessible this year, at the same time as they have been forced to change how they reach and recruit students. The typical high school visit is out the window, so more organic means of school-student interaction like social media have gained a lot of traction."

But in the coronavirus-devastated economy, the problem of how to pay for college has worsened, especially for those already at a financial disadvantage.

"There is always a worry that students who are economically vulnerable will be forced, due to job demands and pressure to support family members who themselves have lost jobs, to drop out of college," said Westbrook.

For those students, says Beckham, taking a year off before applying for college to wait out the pandemic can further disadvantage them.

"A gap year means different things to different students. And unfortunately, it's one of those options that reinforces the racial and wealth divide," Beckham said. "A student from an affluent family may see a gap year as an opportunity to take on a virtual internship with a company connected to a parent; a low-income student might see it as working more shifts at the local grocery store to save money and help out their family in this uncertain time."

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A New Report Says Illinois Should Change How It Funds Higher-Ed

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December 2, 2020

by PETER MEDLIN - NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS

A new report reflects on the long-term cost of cutting education funding during past recessions and how Illinois can learn from those mistakes during the COVID recession.

The Partnership for College Completion argues that recessions are a rare opportunity to make college access and cost more equitable.

Mike Abrahamson is the Partnership's policy manager. He believes the future of Illinois' economy depends on how Illinois devotes funding to education now, when dollars are scarce and there could be budget cuts for schools around the corner.

"It's crucial that we respond to this not by cutting across the board, if we do need to make cuts, but in a way that recognizes the institutions and the students that they serve."

The report calls for the state to adopt a funding formula for higher-ed -- similar to K-12's Evidence-Based Funding -- that prioritizes schools who rely more on state appropriations and often enroll a higher percent of low-income and students of color.

Up to 10% funding cuts could be on the horizon for higher-ed in Illinois. He said it's important to remember schools and students won't be hit equally.

"At some universities, it might mean increasing tuition by a few hundred dollars at others in order to make up that gap it would be over $1,000," he said. "And those students have far less ability to pay because our most financially vulnerable institutions also enroll our most financially vulnerable students."

That also means directing more money the Monetary Award Program or MAP need-based grants. Abrahamson says Illinois' FAFSA completion gap grew because of the pandemic -- with completion dropping 4% at lower-income high schools and increasing by nearly 5% at more affluent schools.

He said it's vital Illinois invest in education during the COVID-induced recession. The report states that disinvestment during previous economic downturns directly led to enrollment declines over the past decade.

Along with equity-focused funding for the next few years, the report also asks the state to establish a transparent equity task force to plan a long-term funding formula for higher-ed.

Source: https://www.nprillinois.org/post/new-report-says-illinois-should-change-how-it-funds-higher-ed#stream/0

This report was also featured on Tri States Public Radio, Northern Public Radio, and in POLITICO's Illinois Playbook.

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Work, classes, financial aid — and now COVID-19: Life as a poor college student has only gotten tougher during the pandemic

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November 28, 2020

by ELYSSA CHERNEY - Chicago Tribune

When Ximena Castillo needs to focus on her college coursework, she walks down the hall from her basement apartment in Chicago's Gage Park neighborhood and settles into her new study spot: the laundry room.

No one bothers her there. It's quiet and the temperature is comfortable — until, that is, one of her neighbors needs to wash or dry a load.

But Castillo, a junior at Dominican University in River Forest, still prefers working there than in the small unit she shares with her parents, which is full of distractions. She used to live on campus, but she moved home after the coronavirus pandemic erupted and doesn't have her own bedroom anymore.

"I don't feel comfortable going to a cafe or anything currently," said Castillo, 20, who worries she could expose her relatives to COVID-19. The laundry room is "not the best, but not the worst. I would prefer to be outside with my dogs because I like sitting in nature, but it's way too cold for that right now."

Finding a setting conducive to schoolwork is just one of the myriad challenges low-income college students face as they try to continue their education despite pandemic-related setbacks.

Some students have withdrawn from school because of changing economic circumstances, problems with online learning or difficulty connecting to virtual student services.

According to U.S. census data from August, nearly 7 million people said they canceled college plans for the fall because their income had changed during the pandemic and they could no longer pay.

Overall undergraduate enrollment at U.S. colleges is down about 4.4%, with the greatest declines seen in community colleges and among first-year students, according to the latest data from the National Student Clearinghouse. While the NSC does not break the numbers down by socioeconomic status, nontraditional and low-income students typically favor community colleges.

In Illinois, fewer students have applied for federal and state financial aid since schools closed down in March compared with the same time last year, according to the Illinois Student Assistance Commission, which administers need-based grants to college students. That's a sign low-income students might be abandoning college plans altogether instead of seeking help with tuition.

"For our low-income students, they are obviously struggling with their education and helping out with their families," said Jacqueline Moreno, an executive staff member at ISAC. "It's not entirely different from what low-income students face when they are first-generation college students in any year — it's just exacerbated right now, and people are paying more attention."

Unlike in families where going to university is expected, Moreno said, low-income and first-generation college students often feel guilt for pursuing higher education and not immediately entering the workforce to help with household bills.

Castillo, a graphic design major, is trying her best to stay on track. She's refinanced her student loans, received help from her school's COVID-19 relief fund and taken on extra jobs to put toward her tuition.

Her mom, who works at a Little Caesars, and her father, a construction worker on medical leave prior to the pandemic, don't make enough to cover the cost but have always encouraged her to pursue higher education, though they didn't go to college.

But between picking up shifts as a hostess at a University Village restaurant and trying to complete her coursework, Castillo is often exhausted. She's still more than $2,000 behind on school payments and can't register for spring classes until she puts forward more money, she said.

At the same time, her shifts at the restaurant have dried up as business slows due to the pandemic and the ban on indoor dining. Castillo used to work up to five days a week at Bar Louie but is now lucky if she gets scheduled for one.

"It's a lot on my plate," said Castillo, who went to George Westinghouse College Prep in East Garfield Park, part of Chicago Public Schools. "I feel like either my work suffers or my school suffers, and it's so hard.

"For a while I was juggling two jobs on top of school, and I felt like I was drowning. No sleep. Constantly on energy drinks and coffee just to get by. And it was so unsatisfying because I would do my best at everything and get half done."

'It went downhill this semester'

Taking time off from college was not part of Jony Estrada's plan. Though he was nervous about starting classes this fall at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Estrada had been eager to study economics and wanted to minor in finance.

The 21-year-old, however, began to feel overwhelmed with virtual learning and the amount of coursework. The large class sizes didn't help — Estrada said he grew anxious waiting for professors to reply to emailed questions — and he struggled to connect with UIC tutors when he tried to reach them by phone.

"I never considered taking a gap year until this year, when this whole pandemic started," said Estrada, who lives in the West Elsdon neighborhood, near Midway Airport, with his parents. "It went downhill this semester. I don't know if it's because I'm a new student and I'm not familiar with how things work around here or just because of the work."

Estrada earned his associate degree from Loyola University Chicago over the summer and participates in a program through the nonprofit Bottom Line, which helps low-income and first-generation students reach college and obtain a degree.

While Estrada hoped to continue making progress this semester, he felt staying in school would negatively affect his mental health, so he dropped his four classes just before midterms.

Chris Broughton, executive director of Bottom Line's Chicago operations, said most of the 1,500 students in his programs are sticking with school even though they don't like online classes.

"About 85% or more of our students are staying enrolled in college and trying to persist and navigate this new remote learning environment, even though it's been a challenge," he said. "Students are generally feeling dissatisfied and not enjoying that experience in the way they envisioned."

For now, Estrada hopes to get an internship in a business-related field as he decides whether to return to UIC in the spring. He's not sure if he should wait until next year, when there might be a better chance for in-person learning to resume.

"I will graduate because that's my goal also ― to get a diploma, to get a bachelor's degree ― but I think right now I need a little break," he said. "I just don't think I'm ready for this semester."

Deepening inequities

While anecdotes of students delaying college abound, the Illinois Board of Higher Education is trying to prevent students from pausing their studies.

As part of a new campaign called "Stay the Course," IBHE is publicizing data that shows "a significant percentage" of students who take gap years never complete college. The trend is especially prevalent for low-income students, rural students and students of color, the campaign says.

"Almost all of the new jobs created since the 2008 recession require some kind of credential beyond high school," the IBHE campaign says in social media posts and online messages.

According to one NSC study, only 10.5% of roughly the 1.6 million students who had dropped out of Illinois colleges returned to school between 2013 and 2018. Across all states, only 13% returned, and fewer graduated.

But today, as the pandemic enters its ninth month and a new wave of infections triggers statewide restrictions, some of the obstacles can seem insurmountable.

Jermaine Lash, who attended City Colleges of Chicago, is also taking this semester off because of problems with his financial aid.

Lash, 21, of Englewood, said he is seven credits away from earning an associate degree in business administration from Richard J. Daley College, one of the community college network's campuses. But complications with his Federal Pell Grant, assistance that goes to undergraduates with exceptional financial need, have prevented him from enrolling in fall classes.

Lash's advisers at One Million Degrees, an organization that helps Illinois community college students, said his predicament is especially difficult because he must deal with virtual student services at CCC during the arduous process of verifying his financial records.

Part of the holdup: Lash's mother recently died from health issues unrelated to the pandemic, and he can't access her tax documents, Lash said.

"I feel like it would be 10 times better if I could just talk to them in person," Lash said. "Then they'll get a better understanding and help guide me to the right path on figuring out a solution."

Until then, Lash is working in the deli at a Jewel-Osco close to downtown. He hopes the paperwork will be sorted out in time for spring classes but worries he might need to skip next semester too.

"I just want to finish this. I like college," he said. "I went ever since I got out of high school. ... Ever since then, I've never taken a break or anything. So now this is something new to me. ... It doesn't really feel right."

As a whole, Illinois community colleges are enduring a major hit from the pandemic, with enrollment plunging nearly 14% this fall, according to data from the Illinois Community College Board.

While IBHE hasn't released fall enrollment figures for the state's public universities, the NSC estimates overall college enrollment in Illinois dropped by 6.4%.

The gap indicates how the pandemic is disproportionately affecting low-income communities of color, said Lisa Castillo Richmond, managing director of the Partnership for College Completion, a Chicago nonprofit. She's concerned the pandemic will further deepen inequities in higher education.

"Our community colleges serve our most vulnerable students," she said. "They serve much greater proportions of low-income students, first-generation students, African American students and Latinx students."

The number of students seeking financial aid through state and federal grants has also dropped off since the pandemic closed schools in March, a sign that college may seem out of reach for some.

As of mid-November, the state's need-based Monetary Award Program had received 8% fewer applications from eligible students compared with the same point last year, according to ISAC.

For the 2021-22 school year, applications from MAP-eligible students have dropped by 9%, though it's still early in the cycle. Submissions only opened Oct. 1.

'Students will work their tails off'

During the pandemic, Dominican University has seen a "dramatic increase" in financial aid appeals, which students can file when there's a change in their economic situation.

For many, that's due to a family member losing a job, health care costs and other unforeseen expenses, said Victoria Spivak, assistant vice president of student enrollment services and director of financial aid.

"Dominican serves a very high-needs population," she said. "We are over 50% Pell eligible. ... We also serve a significant number of undocumented students."

In response to financial aid appeals, Dominican provided additional institutional aid and also distributed money made available to students through the federal coronavirus relief program. Students can use those grants to pay for pandemic-related expenses including food, housing and technology. So far, Dominican had awarded nearly $1.5 million in such grants, a spokeswoman said.

Broughton, of Bottom Line, said his organization also doled out more than $160,000 to help students with groceries and other emergency expenses over the last 10 months through a new fund.

But for students like Castillo, the struggle continues. Her mom lost two weeks of wages, she said, after someone at Little Caesars contracted COVID-19 and she had to quarantine due to the exposure.

Castillo has more time to study since her shifts at Bar Louie have been reduced, but she's anxious she won't have enough money to pay down her balance in time for spring classes.

Students can't register for courses if they owe $1,000 or more in unpaid fees, said Mark Carbonara, Dominican's director of academic advising and first-year experience, who's been helping Castillo look for more scholarships.

"Our students will work their tails off — second and third shift ― in order to pay for college," but those jobs are disappearing because of COVID-19, he said.

While it's nerve-wracking to wait, Castillo said she remains hopeful she'll come up with money to attend next semester. She said the adversity will make her a stronger person in the end.

"I just remind myself how lucky I am to even have the opportunity to go to school," she said. "I know a lot of people in my neighborhood who didn't have the same opportunities as I did."

Source: https://www.chicagotribune.com/coronavirus/ct-covid-19-illinois-low-income-college-students-20201127-53zqwvncw5colb72ni3ylxgjwu-story.html

This article was also featured in the Tyler Morning Telegraph and the Herald & Review.

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Illinois Higher Ed Matters Week: Recognizing Illinois’ Higher Ed Heroes

The Partnership for College Completion (PCC) is pleased to announce May 11-15, 2020 as Illinois Higher Ed Matters Week – highlighting the many ways colleges and universities across the state are serving students and their local, state, and national communities during the COVID-19 crisis.

During Illinois Higher Ed Matters Week, institutions are sharing their stories of – what PCC calls "higher ed heroism" – to call attention to the critical importance of Illinois' public and private nonprofit 2- and 4-year institutions of higher education to the state's recovery from this unprecedented event.

As COVID-19 continues to make a devastating and disproportionate impact on communities across socioeconomic and racial lines, broader structural inequities have been cast under a bright light and the unstable financial situation in which many of Illinois students live has been made even more so.

In response, Illinois colleges and universities have worked to adapt quickly to this new landscape and serve current and incoming students and communities not just in an educating capacity but as a compassionate community partner and provider of critical services and resources.

The stories of heroism in Illinois' higher education system must be told.

Following the conclusion of Illinois Higher Ed Matters Week, PCC will be blogging about the collection of #ILHigherEdMatters stories shared as part of the campaign.

Learn more about the campaign here.

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