Guest Blog: Fallen Flat on the Shoulders of My Students

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For too long, Illinois' working and low-income residents have borne the brunt of the state's 'flat tax.' A fair tax would ensure the state's wealthiest pay their fair share and Illinois' working and low-income residents have greater access to realizing their dreams - including going to college.

Keisha Rembert

Keisha Rembert | October 2020 
Keisha Rembert is an Assistant Professor at National Louis University. She is a Teach Plus Illinois Policy Fellowship alumna, 2019 Illinois History Teacher of the Year and NCTE's 2019 Outstanding Middle Level Educator in the English Language Arts. The ideas expressed in this piece are the personal opinions of the author and not reflective of or connected to her employer.

My students are the essential workers you see stacking shelves at your local grocery store, the child care workers who are caring for and keeping young children safe, and the ones at the drive-thru window serving you while the world seems paused. They work, attend classes, take care of siblings and ill relatives and oftentimes, have been the sole support for their families during this pandemic. They are the heroes we herald and laud in this time of crisis.

While they gave the lion's share of their energy to care for us all, they are burdened by an unfair tax system that requires more of them still -- as low-income and working people in Illinois pay twice as much as wealthy people in the name of a "flat tax."

My students have given and Illinois has taken.

It is time to right that wrong. A fair tax structure in Illinois means the wealthiest among us pay their fair share, and we do not leave the hefty financial burden to marginalized communities who have long carried this tremendous load.What would a possible state revenue increase of $3 billion a year do for my students, our essential workers? The possibilities are innumerable. It could, first, make additional educational funding more readily available and accessible, enabling my students to continue the education they so desperately desire. Their educational dreams often rest in their ability to pay for their schooling. A fair tax structure could allow for more state-directed dollars to go to financial aid grants like the state's Monetary Award Program (MAP) that makes higher education feasible for them and other Illinoisans for whom college seems like an impossible dream.

With increased revenue and financial investments in higher education, my students mobility to the middle class and beyond is viable.The additional state revenue and financial support could also prevent institutions of higher learning from faltering as was the case for six Illinois institutions who closed their doors in 2019-20. There are educational deserts in our state--places where colleges and universities are virtually nonexistent. More places around the state could fall into this category as institutions have already experienced formidable cuts and are bracing for future cuts to state funding in the coming years.

These cuts impact my students most. They are the ones who have already been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. They are the ones already combatting an opportunity and equity gap.

Read Keisha Rembert's Chicago Sun-Times Letter to the Editor, "Vote for the fair tax to give my college students a fighting chance to get ahead"

My students work hard and deserve to enter a workforce eager and ready to welcome them. The current job and financial landscape look grim for them and without significant changes, like the fair tax amendment offers, the prospect of entering a healthy job market is unlikely with current double-digit unemployment rates. Inability to secure employment means a continuation and expansion of the existing wealth gap.

My students know the perils and feel the effects of Illinois not paying its bills year after year. They have lived with inadequate access to childcare and grown up in schools forced to cut teachers and without proper resources. They deserve more.

The fair tax amendment is a step toward creating a more equitable Illinois. A chance to remove the undue burden my students have been saddled with for far too long. It means more access, more funding, more resources to move Illinois forward. A vote for the fair tax amendment gives my students a chance to realize their dreams.

My mother always told me 'life is not fair.' I hated to hear it and wondered why life couldn't be more fair. Her mantra is essentially what the state of Illinois has been living by with its current tax system. Now is the time to make it fair--it's possible.

Learn more about what the fair tax could mean for Illinois Higher Education here.

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Experts discuss possible solutions to college affordability in Illinois

WSILtv

October 21, 2020

by MIKE MILETICH - WSILTV.com

SPRINGFIELD (ILLINOIS CAPITOL BUREAU) – State lawmakers hope to craft a plan to make college more affordable, especially for many in low-income communities.

Experts say tuition rates continue to soar compared to the average income for those going to college or tech schools. They also told lawmakers community colleges haven't been exempt from the rise in costs due to inflation. Some feel financial aid is critical to providing access to higher education for students in low-income communities.

"We have families that are priced out not just from college attendance in general at four year institutions, but also public two year institutions," said Dr. Eboni Zamani-Gallaher.

The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign professor noted dips in attendance align with a lack of diversity in funding models. Zamani-Gallaher feels the state needs more incentives and opportunities to attract students to continue their education.

Currently, five community colleges in Illinois offer promise programs to help high school graduates with full scholarships.

"When combined with Pell and MAP grants, many community college students that benefit from promise programs can attend college without any out-of-pocket costs in terms of tuition and fees," said Brian Durham, Executive Director of the Illinois Community College Board (ICCB).

However, the promise programs fall under a category of "last dollar" programs. Durham explained students have to take advantage of all other options of aid before they access funding from promise programs.

Importance of financial aid
Data from the Illinois Student Assistance Commission showing costs for low-income students.

The Illinois Student Assistance Commission (ISAC) also feels financial aid is critical to providing higher education to students in low-income communities.

Executive Director Eric Zarnikow says 54% of MAP recipients are first-generation college students or have no financial resources for college.

"MAP is supporting about 60% of Black undergraduates and well over half of Latino/Latina undergrads attending public universities," Zarnikow said.

He also highlighted work with Gov. JB Pritzker's office to identify a plan to improve grant aid. Zarnikow said combining a $50 million increase in MAP funding with an effort to put 15% of those funds towards community college students could cover tuition and fees for most MAP-eligible community college students.

"He aimed to make community college tuition-free for MAP eligible students whose families make under $45,000 a year. That was essentially free community college program for families making under that amount," Zarnikow added.

Strong free college programs

Meanwhile, the Partnership for College Completion argues Illinois has the framework for a free four-year college program through MAP grants.

"We frankly believe very strongly in the mission of MAP to serve our lowest income students and our neediest students in our state and prioritizing our public resources to do that," Executive Director Kyle Westbrook said.

Sarah Labadie, Associate Director of Policy for Women Employed, feels the idea of free college is attractive to many people. While some community colleges function tuition-free, Labadie noted the state doesn't market it that way.

"If designed really well, a free college program or even remarketing our current program could really ensure that we're able to attract more students to higher education who otherwise think it's out of reach," Labadie explained.

She told lawmakers strong free college programs ensure students leave college without debt. Labadie said successful programs allow anyone to take advantage of the assistance and cover costs for four years of education.

Planning for the future


Many hope the state could explore an equity-based funding model for college similar to the K-12 evidence-based model.

"Even if we gave more money to this system, it is not going to bring equity and justice when it comes to communities of color. It is not designed that way and we have to accept that, find the flaw in it, and fix the design," added Rep. Carol Ammons (D-Urbana).

The Illinois Board of Higher Education hosted focus groups and created a survey for people to share solutions. Executive Director Ginger Ostro hopes to adopt their strategic plan by late March with support from the ICCB and ISAC. Still, Ostro said that would only be the start of the process.

"We will have the need for a series of policy changes, state-level practice changes, as well as institutional-level changes," Ostro explained. "As we go over the next couple of months, there's really an opportunity here for all of us to come together and decide what direction we want to go. How are we going to address these inequities that we've seen in the higher education system? How are we going to meet workforce needs, and how are we going to drive the state's economy?"

Source: https://wsiltv.com/2020/10/21/experts-discuss-possible-solutions-to-college-affordability-in-illinois/ 

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The Importance of Faculty Champions in Equity Work

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Creating an equity-minded culture is hard work and takes a community of champions to bring to fruition. It takes commitment from all corners of a campus to ensure student pathways and organizational structures and institutional policies and teaching and learning practices are designed in ways that support more equitable outcomes. As members of the Illinois Equity in Attainment initiative (ILEA) developed their Equity Plans for their campuses, the role and engagement of faculty voices was integral, and the theme of our 2020 ILEA Virtual Fall Summit - Engaging Faculty Champions in Equity Work - aptly reflects this. When we think of champions, we think of people who are willing to advocate for a cause they strongly believe in and want to support. With greater numbers of faculty champions on our campuses, ILEA members and other institutions doing equity work move closer to creating an equity-minded culture focused on making sure all students succeed.

As the Partnership for College Completion gears up for next week's summit, hear from faculty champions at Harold Washington College, Kishwaukee College, and Saint Xavier University on increasing student readiness, empowering faculty of color, and teaching and practice through an equity lens for all faculty.

​Harold Washington College
Asif Wilson, PhD, Associate Dean of Instruction
Sandy Vue, Assistant Director - Research & Planning
Jackie Werner, Associate Dean of Instruction
Maria Ortiz, Faculty
Bernadette Limos, Director - Strategic Initiatives, Marketing & Communications.
​​​Kishwaukee College
Pernevlon Ellis Jr., MA,  
Interim Associate Dean, Office of Instruction, Formerly Assistant Professor of Sociology; classes taught include race and ethnic relations, introduction to criminology, marriage and family, and social problems.
Saint Xavier University​
Gina M. Rossetti, PhD
Professor of English and University Fellow for Student Success; Teach First Year composition classes, introductory literature classes, American literature, and literature/humanities courses in the Honors Program. I have been at Saint Xavier University since 2002.

Partnership for College Completion (PCC): A core belief of the ILEA community is that colleges and universities should move beyond a focus on college readiness among students and instead strive to be student-ready as institutions of higher education. What does this mean to you and your work?

Harold Washington College (HWC): The position of being college ready may negatively place blame on the student as the sole purveyor of academic success. This notion also assumes that colleges and universities are in no need of transformation. Being student ready requires that we, as schools of higher education turn inward to reflect and transform the harmful mechanisms—practices, policies, and structures—that limit the possibility of living our missions.

Pernevlon Ellis, Jr., MA (ELLIS): Leaders of every postsecondary institution must engage in strategic planning that allows for the greatest flexibility to achieve its mission and vision. This requires setting and assessing realistic goals and making data-informed decisions. The ability to respond to trends in data to use resources appropriately to meet the needs of its stakeholders. The data that exists on achievement gaps must inform policy and practices to address the ability of colleges and universities to achieve equity. The mission and vision of each institution I have read can't be achieved with addressing these gaps.

Gina M. Rossetti, PhD (ROSETTI): For me, I believe it means beginning with a foundational value: every student is capable of learning. When we focus on only the student's readiness for higher education, we are attempting to mold him/her into a pre-packaged spot. To offer a more welcoming environment, institutions ought to look at policies, practices, curricula to ensure that all are inclusive for a diverse student body.

Pernevlon Ellis Jr.

PCC: A threat to the long-term success of faculty of color is racial battle fatigue among other factors. In what ways should institutions intervene to empower the success of faculty of color?

HWC: Schools, including spaces of higher education, inherently were not designed with people of color in mind (their histories make this very clear). The supposed invisible offensive mechanisms, as Chester Pierce (1970) called them, are as painful as the physical harm our bodies experience. These assaults not only leave staff, admin, and faculty of color (and other minoritized identities) feeling a sense of isolation, and can have long term negative health outcomes. Professionals of color working in schools of higher education need to feel a sense of belonging, a sense power, and a sense of community if the rates of push out (and unfortunately death) are ever to decrease.

ELLIS: Postsecondary institutions must assess and respond to the structural and cultural barriers to success for its faculty from historically marginalized groups. This includes identifying and addressing the barriers in the process of recruitment, development, and retention. Once barriers have been identified leaders of these institutions must facilitate the inclusion of organizational goals to address these as part of the strategic planning process. This will ensure resources are in place to address the micro insults, assaults and invalidations that lead to racial battle fatigue.

ROSETTI: A couple of approaches can be a faculty mentoring program for faculty mentors of color, which will assist new colleagues in both the tenure process, but also in onboarding colleagues so that they are welcomed into the institution. A second approach is that there must be a commitment from all colleagues at the institution that equity and access are important for all, and that matters are not articulated by faculty members of color. In other words, White colleagues must also engage in an institutional equity scan, identifying with colleagues of color pitfalls and barriers, and working together to eliminate them.

Dr. Gina M. Rossetti

PCC: According to this year's ILEA Fall Summit keynote speaker, Dr. Estela Bensimon, "equity-minded individuals are aware of the sociohistorical context of exclusionary practices and racism in higher education." How can your college or university expand awareness of these exclusionary practices that harm faculty, staff and students of color?

HWC: When William Rainey Harper, president of University of Chicago, began advocating for community colleges in the early 1900s, he was not doing so to expand access and opportunity to those who previously not had. Furthermore, the land the University of Chicago was donated to Rockefeller by Illinois Senator Stephan Douglas, who built his wealth from the unpaid labor of his slaves.

The histories of our school reveal their not-so-nice histories, bound in what bell hooks calls white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. By unearthing the oppressive legacies of our institutions (like the fact that Harold Washington College is built on the site of a jail where indigenous tribes were forced to sign treaties) we may be able to dream, and actualize, a world that doesn't reproduce the historical harm that our schools have.

ELLIS: Motivate employees to work individually and collectively to be a leading culturally competent institution. Encouraging white faculty, staff and administrators to lead these efforts to address the organization's failure to maintain a culture conducive to the retention and success of faculty and students from historically marginalized racial and ethnic groups. They also need to lean less on faculty and staff of color to do this work.

ROSETTI: First and foremost, we need to listen to the experiences of colleagues and students of color, whose experiences at the institution are often quite different than those experienced by Whites. Second, we need to act upon what we learn from such experiences, working together to identify and prioritize how we can address these barriers.

PCC: During this pandemic, how can faculty integrate an equity and inclusion lens into their teaching and practice?

HWC: We do not believe that creating more equitable contexts requires lots of funding, new positions, or consultants. The praxis required for this sort of transformation must be built on love, care, and compassion. A love that bounds seemingly different people together to develop new knowledge, and hopefully a love that can transform oppression in the world and our schools.

We call faculty in to be mindful of the ways in which their planning, instruction, and assessment align to students' lives, communities, and center justice. We call administrators in to be mindful of the potential inequitable and harmful consequences of the decisions they are empowered to make. We call staff in to be mindful that they are educators too, every caring and compassionate interaction the students you serve can have long lasting, and transformational impacts. Together, we all can create the conditions in our schools that honor each other, in all that we have to offer.

ELLIS: Faculty are working diligently to facilitate learning that allows students to achieve the mastery of knowledge and skills expected in every discipline. Information and communication technologies are allowing for great creativity in the delivery of course content. Ensuring that we all engage in positive micro-messaging in our communications with students will be important. Interaction with students should be empowering to help those without it to develop the grit necessary to achieve academic success while enduring the challenges that accompany this pandemic.

ROSETTI: In many ways, the pandemic has intensified gaps, particularly in terms of technology and access to it (whether it is Wifi or personal technological devices that are not shared among family members). As a faculty member, I meet one-on-one with my students throughout the semester, and the same approach can be enhanced via technology. These conferences occur—both as regularly scheduled meetings—but also after assignments where I have seen a student struggle with the project. In reaching out to the student, I show him/her that I care about his/her academic success, and that we can work together to make the success a reality.

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Join PCC on Friday, October 16 from 11a-12p CT for our first Twitter Chat: The Importance of Faculty Champions in Equity Work. Follow us @partnershipfcc and use the hashtag #PCCchat.

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PCC: Vote 'Yes' to Fair Tax and Help Build a Pathway to More Equitable Higher Education in Illinois

Early voting begins today in Illinois, and with it, the opportunity to increase our state's revenue and set the stage for increased funding for higher education. The proposed Fair Tax amendment aims to change the income tax rate from a flat rate (taxing everyone at the same rate) to a graduated rate. Ninety-seven percent of Illinoisans will see either no tax increase at all or a tax cut; this change will increase taxes only on Illinois' wealthiest residents. By passing the fair tax referendum this fall, state leaders will not only raise more than $3B a year, but more importantly, create a pathway to adequately fund colleges and universities, invest in college students, and build a strong future for our state.

Support for a fair tax system could not come at a more pivotal time. The state is reeling from the fallout of an unprecedented public health crisis that has had deep economic implications for colleges, students, families, and Illinois communities. For students, higher education remains the surest way to the middle class and will be more important than ever to help students and their families recover from the pandemic. According to the Pew Research Center, the unemployment rate in May was lowest among workers with a bachelor's degree or higher (7.2%), the only group not to experience an unemployment rate in the double digits. Similarly, those with a postsecondary degree or credential will likely fare better in the recovery, as over 95 percent of jobs created after the Great Recession went to workers with at least some college education.

Amidst the fallout, Illinois colleges and universities have persisted in carrying on their missions. Despite significant strains on existing resources, they continue to deploy critical resources to students and community members who have been most impacted by the virus, demonstrating their unique value to the future vitality of our state. As the state faces the ongoing impact of COVID-19, investment in higher education will be critical to supporting institutions and equipping students with the resources they need to enroll and persist in college and achieve their career aspirations.

However, as the proverbial budget-balancing wheel, without additional funding from the federal government or new state revenue, colleges and universities are preparing for the worst. Just this month, the Governor asked state agencies to plan for 5% cuts in the current year and 10% cuts next year. This is troubling news for all institutions but could be devastating for Illinois' most financially vulnerable colleges and universities, often the same institutions that serve higher percentages of Black and Latinx students. This is particularly concerning now, as COVID-19 is disproportionately impacting Black and Latinx communities and exacerbating inequities experienced by students of color. Cuts to the Monetary Award Program (MAP) or to institutions serving marginalized students will undoubtedly result in more pronounced equity gaps in access and completion for Illinois' Black and Latinx students and students from low-income communities. For many, it could close the door to higher education altogether.

On its own, a fair tax system will not fill our projected state budget shortfall or close existing equity gaps, but it is a necessary first step. In the immediate term, it could lead to level funding for FY2022, which can provide stability for students who rely on state-based financial aid to access college, and to institutions that depend on state funding for critical programs and services. In the long-term, it could position Illinois to implement a more adequate and equitable higher education funding model that prioritizes funding to institutions serving marginalized communities.

When filling out your ballot this fall, vote yes on a tax system that will work towards economic equality and provide Illinois the revenue boost it needs to fund critical services, like higher education.

*Public higher education institutions and employees are limited in their ability to take action on behalf of Fair Tax. If you're interested in supporting a fair tax system in Illinois as an individual, sign on to endorse Fair Tax here. 

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Stand for justice in Illinois higher education and sign up for our Policy Alerts

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ILEA Member Spotlight: Meet Michelle Rothmeyer, Ed.D, Kishwaukee College

1. What is your current role/title?

I currently serve as the Vice President of Student Services at Kishwaukee College.

2. Where did you earn your degrees and what did you study?

Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, IL Ed.D, Higher Education, Community College Leadership, 2020

Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, IL, M.S.Ed, Adult & Higher Education, Student Affairs, 2010

Judson University, Elgin IL, B.A. Liberal Arts-Management & Leadership, 2000

3. How did your college/university support your success in earning your degrees?

Once I decided to return to college to pursue my master's and Doctorate degrees, both institutions I worked for supported my return, both emotionally and financially. Being a non-traditional, first generation student myself, I probably would not have returned to college without the encouragement of my supervisors and colleagues in the field.Once I decided that working in higher education was the career for me, focusing on learning more about higher education just made sense.I wanted to learn how to help students understand the importance of college and the best way to navigate their way through the process no matter what barriers were present.Each degree I completed allowed me the opportunity to take on new positions in higher education and additional opportunities for providing support for students.

4. What excites you about equity work at your institution?

My higher education career began as an Academic Advisor almost two decades ago.There were many times that I would meet with students and observe how they struggled to afford the tuition payment or the purchase of books, navigating the software programs that were needed to register and participate in classes, and make it through the first week of classes let alone complete their semester. It is the experiences I have been involved in since starting at Kishwaukee College in 2015 that make me appreciate the work we are doing to assist students who come to college with different needs. We have enhanced our advising model, added supportive services to assist our students with barriers they encounter while attending college.We added the TRIO Student Support Services and Upward Bound grants, we hired a Student Success Advisor who primarily works with students who are at-risk, and partnered with other offices on campus to provide the students the support services needed to complete their goals while in college.There is so much more ahead for us at Kish, under the Leadership of our President, Dr. Laurie Borowicz and our partnership with Partnership for College Completion.Our college is well on our way to improving equity for our students.We have an Equity Plan, an Equity Statement, and we are working with our college community to implement strategies for changing our culture.

5. In your role, how do you impact equitable outcomes for your students?

As the Vice President of Student Services, each day I lead a team who impacts our students as they navigate college. Several of the new initiatives and changes the College has implemented since 2015 have taken place in Student Services. Most recently, we added a Student Success Advisor position where the primary focus was designed to serve at-risk students by providing proactive case management using a holistic approach that requires multiple touch points throughout the semester. Most of the students in the program come to college testing into developmental English and Math. In my mind, equity guides the work we do to ensure students succeed and to make sure students get the resources they need along the way to be successful. The focus in Student Services is to help our students find that success and complete their intended goals. Our strategies include: 

  • Cultural Competency in the classroom 
  • The hiring of diverse individuals for staff and faculty 
  • Providing Wrap Around Student Services 
  • Providing Developmental Education support for those students who come to Kish at-risk 
  • Retention and persistence leading to completion of our diverse populations and transition into work 

I am fortunate to be part of the Kish team who is building a program focused on equity for our students. Knowing what we have already accomplished and where we plan to go from here is exciting. Changing a culture takes time and the time is now for the Kish community.

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ILEA Newsletter – Letter From Our Managing Director

Dear ILEA Partners,

Welcome back to school for a fall semester unlike any other. We have seen your teams up close as they have done whatever it takes to make plans for students to continue high-quality learning, provide new supports for students, and enable them to form social bonds and foster a connection with your colleges – and to do all of this safely both on and off campus. It is a Herculean task and the amount of creativity, innovation, and hard work are evident to all of us. We've also seen quick shifts to alter plans as the semester began and the virus affected students, faculty and staff. We are now beginning to see early reports about the upcoming spring semester, which look to be a continuation of current approaches.

The pandemic has continued to impact lives on and off campus, and has generally contributed to declines in enrollment across the state that cause concern about student access and institutional stability. This summer, campuses saw a significant decrease in enrollments, raising equity concerns, particularly among Black students, rural students, and at community colleges. Early data for the fall suggests that enrollments are down nationally, and among ILEA partners from between 5% and upwards of 20%. However, there are exceptions that give us hope. Northern Illinois University had a 1% increase in total enrollment for fall 2020 over the prior year, driven by an 8% increase in the size of the freshmen class and a 6% improvement in retention of first-year students. The Illinois Board of Higher Education's (IBHE) Stay the Course campaign and the website launched by the PCC this summer, Illinois Colleges Forward, aim to encourage students, parents, and the counselors who advise them that students should continue to pursue their college goals in Illinois whenever possible, even during this extremely challenging year.

Now, more than ever, your ILEA Equity Plans are powerful tools to help address student persistence, completion, and the adverse impacts of COVID-19 on our communities. They provide a roadmap to greater equity in opportunity within your institutions and seek to shine a light on how we can remove unnecessary barriers for students, as well as provide critical supports to those who need them, when they need them. The publishing of 21 institutional equity plans last month represents a significant and deliberate step toward equity in higher education in the state of Illinois, and we congratulate your important step forward. These plans detail approaches to onboarding first-year students, reforming developmental education, diversifying faculty, using data to target interventions, and much more. In the coming months and at the 2020 ILEA Virtual Fall Summit, we look forward to sharing more with you about the strategies within these plans and how we can make connections among ILEA institutions to support implementation and a process of continuous, collective learning and improvement.

PCC was also pleased to announce Catalyst Grants in the amount of $12,000 for all ILEA colleges and universities publishing their Equity Plans this year, as the result of a grant from a local foundation. Please read below and also look for an email from your ILEA Equity Program Manager this week for more information on how to access the Catalyst Grant. We look forward to continuing to identify opportunities for greater philanthropic investment in your equity work.

In the months that remain of 2020, we look forward to seeing you virtually at a number of upcoming events, including at the 2020 ILEA Virtual Fall Summit, which is dedicated to the critical role of faculty in eliminating equity disparities on campus. We have spent a significant amount of time adapting the schedule and session approaches to be conducive to a virtual event, and we look forward to sharing that with all of you. Because we are not bound by physical limitations presented by an in-person event, we encourage you to invite at least 25 faculty and department chairs from your institutions to join us for these sessions. We also hope to see many of you at our ongoing Equity Webinar series and at additional workshops that will be announced in the coming weeks.

We know the demands on your time will continue to be substantial, and we recognize all you do to ensure your students are safe and supported. I hope that despite all of the challenges with which you are faced in this moment, you can enjoy some of the beauty that the fall season offers -- at a safe distance and with a mask, of course.

In partnership for equity,

Lisa Castillo Richmond

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Moving Equity from the Margin to the Center: Releasing the Campus Wide ILEA Equity Plans

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Julian Williams, Ph.D., Equity Program Manager | Aug 20, 2020

Eliminating disparities in degree attainment between Black and White students, Latinx and White students and Pell-receipt and non-Pell receipt students is no small task -- but it is the challenge that our 28 college and university partners publicly committed to addressing when they volunteered to join the Illinois Equity in Attainment (ILEA) initiative.

Across the nation institutions have eliminated gaps on their campuses when they have had leaders committed to equity and a plan to guide their work. Our ILEA partners joined the initiative because their leaders were committed to equity. The Partnership's task was to help them develop an Equity Plan, connected to but not the same as their institutional strategic plan, to eliminate inequities. 

ILEA began with the belief that institutions can eliminate gaps in degree attainment if they systematically examine their policies and practices to identify barriers to momentum, identify and implement institutional strategies that are proven or have promise to address inequities, and track and evaluate their efforts on an ongoing basis so that they can make adjustments as they learn what works and what does not work.

Developing the ILEA Equity Plan

ILEA began with 25 institutional partners in 2018; and has grown to 28 institutional partners in 2020. Our partners are community colleges and 4-year public and private institutions. While each institution is in the state of Illinois, they can differ significantly in size, culture, structure, and the students that they serve. So, we set out to design an equity plan structure that was common enough to be used across 28 different institutions, but not so prescriptive as to diminish what makes each institution unique.

We ultimately developed an equity plan structure that asked each institution to name and examine their existing disparities, set interim benchmarks for key leading indicators, identify institutional strategies to address their existing inequities, and to develop a process for tracking and evaluating their results so that they could learn from, iterate upon, and improve equity outcomes for their students.

The development of each plan was spearheaded by a dynamic group of cross-departmental and cross-functional campus leaders that we call the ILEA Leadership Team. Over the course of 18 months, each ILEA Leadership team organized, coordinated, and engaged stakeholders across their respective institutions to create their campus wide equity plan.

Supporting Equity Plan Development

To support the development of our partner's equity plans we developed a process that was high-touch, supportive, and responsive. Our supports included an: instruction guide, how-to webinar series, template document, and individualized feedback. The instruction guide explained the purpose of the plan and described each suggested section. The how-to webinar series complimented the instruction guide by providing live presentations about each section of the plan. The template provided an optional pre-formatted document that partners could use to embed their narrative, data, and charts. And lastly, and most importantly, each ILEA partner was paired with an Equity Program Manager from the Partnership that provided individualized feedback on their plan over the course of its development. Additionally, institutions will submit annual reflections about their equity plan implementation and the resulting student outcomes – successes, challenges and how they plan to adapt their plan in the year ahead based on lessons learned.

As a result of yearlong planning process, our ILEA partners will implement a wide range of institutional strategies to eliminate inequities in degree completion on their campuses. Some strategies are new to their institutions, while other strategies existed previously but will be refined or scaled to serve more students. Here is a list of some of the major institutional strategies that our ILEA partners will be implementing on their campus's this fall:

  1. First year mentoring programs (peer; faculty)
  2. New financial supports for students (emergency scholarships, completion/reengagement grants; population specific grants)
  3. Addressing basic needs and non-academic supports (food pantries, textbook reform, social-emotional learning, social belonging)
  4. Creating or better supporting student organizations related to student identity/belonging/culture (Black student unions, Spanish clubs)
  5. Reforming first year courses & sequences (gateway courses; college success courses, orientation; bridge programs)
  6. TRIO programs and additional targeted wraparound supports (McNair Scholars; Male Success Initiatives; Latino Success)
  7. Academic advising reforms (early alerts; targeted advising)
  8. Reforming developmental education courses/placement
  9. Creating population specific success committees and councils
  10. Providing faculty professional development (high impact teaching practices and cultural competency/responsiveness)


We are honored to have had the opportunity to partner with such a dynamic group of institutions and to support the development of their equity plans, which will provide a roadmap for their targeted approaches over the next several years. The institutional introspection was difficult, the development process was imperfect, and COVID-19 required every institution to operate differently nearly overnight – yet, they persisted. Their equity plans are a public display of their commitment to equity. We are thrilled to announce the release of the ILEA Equity Plans and excited to continue supporting our ILEA partners as they begin implementation this fall.

In Partnership,
Julian Williams, Ph.D.

Equity Program Manager | Partnership for College Completion 

Learn more about Equity Plans here.


ILEA Equity Speaks

Read perspectives from leaders at Morton College, Richard J. Daley College, and Roosevelt University about the mission driving their Equity Plan and experience developing it in the ILEA Equity Speaks Blog Series. 

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PCC Letter to Illinois General Assembly Higher Education Committees

Public-Policy-Icon

As advocates seeking to support institutions in eliminating racial equity gaps across Illinois colleges and universities, the Partnership for College Completion stands in solidarity with the Black community and their calls for justice. This unprecedented period shows how deeply ingrained racial injustice is within systems intended to serve the public, demonstrated by continued violence on the Black community at the hands of law enforcement, inequitable lending, and inequitable access to high-quality healthcare. In higher education, inequitable policies perpetuate college access and completion disparities, limiting Black students' higher education opportunities.

The Partnership recommends three critical policy changes that can have an immediate, significant effect on racial equity. Read the full letter here. 

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ILEA Member Spotlight: Meet Brandon Nichols, Ed.D, Olive–Harvey College

1. What is your current role/title?

I currently serve as Vice President, Academic Affairs.

2. Where did you earn your degrees and what did you study?

Sociology – BS, University of Illinois – Urbana-Champaign,

Clinical Psychology – MA, Argosy University (American School of Professional Psychology) – Washington, DC,

Counseling Psychology – Ed.D, Argosy University (American School of Professional Psychology) – Washington, DC

3. How did your college/university support your success in earning your degrees?

Mentorship and socialization opportunities were essential to my development, growth, success. For minoritized students, mentoring is often considered a crucial resource to foster support systems of role models and to garner the academic success. At my undergraduate and graduate institutions, mentor groups, extended new student orientation for students of color, social organizations, and guidance counseling for undeclared majors provided structure and knowledge gaps in navigating a path for successful completion.

4. What excites you about equity work at your institution?

It is gratifying to empower students in reaching their full potential by removing barriers that have historically impacted minoritized students. At Olive-Harvey College, we use a high-touch approach to engage every student to meet their needs to ensure success and completion for all students seeking a credential.

5. In your role, how do you impact equitable outcomes for your students?

As Vice President of Olive-Harvey College, I am grounded in a person-centered and mission-driven approach, through a civic and equity lens. I am currently a member of the College's Illinois Equity Attainment Committee and supporter of the College's Equity Plan. The Plan details specific strategies to support academic success, social integration, and student completion. To support student completion efforts through equity, the College has developed tactics to refine classroom instruction, measuring learning, co-curricular learning, and civic. In my role, I am in support equity through the following​:

  • Faculty development of culturally responsive pedagogy and teaching

  • Multiple measures of learning assessments and tests to align with student learning preferences through face-to-face and hybrid modes of instruction

  • Social integration and exploratory co-curricular opportunities through field and work-based learning experiences

  • Civic engagement through public service events and social justice support (i.e. voter registration, trash clean-up, and community townhalls)


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ILEA Member Spotlight: Meet Brandon Nichols, Ed.D, Olive–Harvey College

1. What is your current role/title?

I currently serve as Vice President, Academic Affairs.

2. Where did you earn your degrees and what did you study?

Sociology – BS, University of Illinois – Urbana-Champaign,

Clinical Psychology – MA, Argosy University (American School of Professional Psychology) – Washington, DC,

Counseling Psychology – Ed.D, Argosy University (American School of Professional Psychology) – Washington, DC

3. How did your college/university support your success in earning your degrees?

Mentorship and socialization opportunities were essential to my development, growth, success. For minoritized students, mentoring is often considered a crucial resource to foster support systems of role models and to garner the academic success. At my undergraduate and graduate institutions, mentor groups, extended new student orientation for students of color, social organizations, and guidance counseling for undeclared majors provided structure and knowledge gaps in navigating a path for successful completion.

4. What excites you about equity work at your institution?

It is gratifying to empower students in reaching their full potential by removing barriers that have historically impacted minoritized students. At Olive-Harvey College, we use a high-touch approach to engage every student to meet their needs to ensure success and completion for all students seeking a credential.

5. In your role, how do you impact equitable outcomes for your students?

As Vice President of Olive-Harvey College, I am grounded in a person-centered and mission-driven approach, through a civic and equity lens. I am currently a member of the College's Illinois Equity Attainment Committee and supporter of the College's Equity Plan. The Plan details specific strategies to support academic success, social integration, and student completion. To support student completion efforts through equity, the College has developed tactics to refine classroom instruction, measuring learning, co-curricular learning, and civic. In my role, I am in support equity through the following​:

  • Faculty development of culturally responsive pedagogy and teaching

  • Multiple measures of learning assessments and tests to align with student learning preferences through face-to-face and hybrid modes of instruction

  • Social integration and exploratory co-curricular opportunities through field and work-based learning experiences

  • Civic engagement through public service events and social justice support (i.e. voter registration, trash clean-up, and community townhalls)


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Choosing Illinois Community Colleges: Investing in Our Communities

My college journey started at Illinois Central College (ICC), one of Illinois' 48 public community colleges located on a bluff overlooking the Illinois River. My commute from Peoria was 30 minutes by car, 60 by bus which I often had to take. I sometimes worked three jobs to pay for school. I was a scrappy B+ student in high school (HS) and immersed myself in my studies for 12 months before earning a transfer scholarship to Bradley University. That was 1980-1981.

When I reflect on my experiences as well as on the challenges college students today face, I think about the role community colleges play in our higher education ecosystem. My work with the Partnership for College Completion and the Illinois Equity in Attainment Initiative (ILEA) provides me an opportunity to support 17 Illinois community colleges who have committed to being agents of change to address racial and socio-economic disparities on their campuses that result in inequitable graduation rates (35% of all community colleges in Illinois). As I think about community colleges providing a better path forward for many students, three things come to mind:

1) Community: The roots of community colleges are diverse and deeply connected to partnerships with K-12 education, industry, healthcare and government in the communities they serve. These roots support the primary functions of community colleges: providing pathways to 4-year degrees, career and technical training, high school partnerships and continuing education. The communities where our state's community colleges operate include our nation's first public community college, Joliet Junior College (1901), Waubonsee Community College, named after the Potawatomi chief, Waubonsie, College of DuPage (the state's largest CC) and the seven City Colleges of Chicago (CCC), two of which are named for three slain civil rights leaders, Malcolm X College and Kennedy-King College. The communities where our state's community colleges serve a vital role are home to the Illinois Medical District, Mondelez International, Walgreens and United Airlines. In FY 2019, Illinois' 48 community colleges enrolled 664,973 students or nearly 36% of all students (highest across all sectors in the state). That means that across Illinois, one out of every three students who have utilized public services and accessed health care, participated in the local workforce, sent their children to local schools, and spent money in their local communities – essentially supporting their local economy – has been a community college student.

2) Choice: ICC was my only choice. It was affordable. Sometimes choice boils down to where you were born, how much wealth your family has and what kind of curve balls you have already faced before enrolling in college. Community colleges play an important role in providing access for many students who have historically been underserved. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, community colleges serve as the entry point to higher education for over 41% of all undergraduates, including 52% of all Latinx and 42% of all Black students. In 2015-2016, 59% of community college students received some form of financial aid, including federal grants (34%), federal loans (15%) and state aid (22%). Additionally, 29% identify as first generation and 15% are single parents.[1] That means one out of four students enrolling in colleges across the country, chose a community college as their starting point.

3) Costs: In 2018-2019, the annual tuition costs and fees for in-state students enrolling in 30 credit hours at public four-year colleges in Illinois ranged from $11,803 to $16,004.[2] For independent, non-profit colleges, it ranged from $7,600 to $57,006.[3] Comparatively, at IL community colleges, full-time, in-district tuition and fees ranged from $3,504 to $5,220.[4] Though costs are less at community colleges, students received fewer federal (11%) and state (10%) financial aid dollars compared to those at four-year public (federal 29%, state 65%) and private (federal 33%, state 21%) institutions in FY 2010-2011.[5] That means the cost of attending an Illinois community college is 50% less than the lowest cost at a public four-year institution, but not all of the students who need federal and state support to cover the costs receive it.

The cost of attending an Illinois community college is 50% less than the lowest cost at a public four-year institution, but not all of the students who need federal and state support to cover the costs receive it.

As we approach the 2020-2021 academic year, many more students may choose to stay closer to their communities. The pandemic, a loss of a job or caring for a loved one at home may force choices for some. For Latinx, Black, first generation and low-income students, racial and socio-economic systemic barriers have historically played a significant role in their choice. When we consider the social injustices playing out on our streets and the need for additional investment in our communities, we should also consider leveling the playing field for the college students who need it the most. Community colleges that are focused on equity in degree completion and increasing overall rates of student success require greater investment for our most vulnerable students.

My community and the support I received from caring professors and practitioners grounded my love for higher education, and my start at ICC helped shape me into the person I am today. Forty years later, I am certain there are many stories like mine waiting to be told across our prairies, rural areas, suburbs and urban communities. 


[1] American Association of Community colleges, 2020. Fast Facts 2020.

[2] IBHE Records, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), Undergraduate based on 30 credit hours, Tuition and Required Fees, Room and Board for Full-Time, In-State Entering Undergraduate Students, 2016-2017, 2017-2018, and 2018-2019 Academic Years.

[3] IBHE Records, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), Undergraduate based on 30 credit hours, Tuition and Required Fees, Room and Board for Full-Time, First-Time Undergraduate Students, 2016-2017, 2017-2018, and 2018-2019 Academic Years

[4] Illinois Community College Board (ICCB) Records, Annual Tuition and Required Fees, Room and Board for Full-Time, In-District Students at Public Community colleges, 2016-2017, 2017-2018, and 2018-2019 Academic Years.

[5] IBHE Records, Student Financial Aid Survey, Distribution of Financial Aid Dollars in Illinois, All Students by Source, Sector, and Type For Fiscal Year 2010 -2011. 

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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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