Can you get into college without an ACT or SAT? University of Illinois might extend test-optional admissions beyond the COVID-19 pandemic that prompted the change


March 22, 2021

By Elyssa Cherney - CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Nearly half of all undergraduate applicants declined to submit ACT or SAT scores to Illinois' largest university during the pandemic-altered admissions cycle — the first time in decades that students could choose whether to share results from the high-stakes exams.

Now, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign wants to extend the test-optional policy for at least two more years, citing continued disruptions from COVID-19.

"We were able to make what I think are good, sound decisions with or without test scores, and we worked really hard not to penalize the students if they elected not to submit a test score," said Andy Borst, director of undergraduate admissions.

About 40% of in-state students withheld test scores, compared with 60% of international students and 25% of out-of-state students, Borst said. In total, about 44% of all prospective students opted to apply without test scores and the overall number of undergraduate applications jumped significantly, particularly for competitive programs such as computer science, Borst said.

The recommendation to expand test-optional admissions for 2022 and 2023 applicants relates solely to challenges posed by the pandemic — such as limited opportunities for high school students to take the exams — and was not in response to long-standing equity concerns that have prompted many universities to abandon the requirement altogether.

The decision, however, isn't finalized. Despite support from the Faculty Senate, U. of I.'s board of trustees must also approve the proposal.

In May, the board will also consider requests from the Springfield and Chicago campuses to extend test-optional admissions for another two years "because of the pandemic and to encourage talented students to apply to our institutions," according to spokeswoman Kirsten Ruby.

UIC has already waived test requirements for first-year undergraduate applications through fall 2022.

More than two dozen colleges and universities across the state have adopted test-optional admissions since 2005, according to the Partnership for College Completion, a Chicago-based organization that advocates for low-income, first generation students and students of color. The PCC has called for all schools in Illinois to drop testing requirements in the wake of COVID-19, saying inconsistent practices will limit less-resourced students' chances to attend selective institutions.

Kyle Westbrook, executive director of the PCC, said years of research demonstrate that high school grade-point average is a better predictor of college success and that test scores tend to correlate with income brackets and a family's ability to pay for expensive test preparation lessons.

"That message has resonated and been received by universities all over the country, even before the pandemic," Westbrook said, noting how the University of Chicago and DePaul University previously went test optional.

Some supporters of using standardized tests in college admissions say the scores can help less privileged students stand out and provide important data to prospective students about an institution's academic environment.

While equity isn't at the core of U. of I.'s proposed extension, professors opened the door to that conversation. When the Faculty Senate overwhelmingly approved the test-optional policy at a meeting this month, it also called for the creation of a task force "to evaluate the efficacy and fairness of entrance exams."

The task force would collect data to examine the impact of the test-optional policy on student enrollment, performance and diversity in coming years.

U. of I. isn't alone in revising its admissions policy. Other Big 10 schools including the University of Wisconsin at Madison and Penn State University are stretching the test-optional protocols through 2023 while others, most notably the University of California, are exploring permanent options to ditch standardized tests.

Competitive private colleges such as Harvard and Stanford universities will also continue a test-optional policy for another year.

"We urge students not to jeopardize their health or well-being to take future sittings of these non-required tests," according to a message on Stanford's website, which also notes there will be limited access to admission testing worldwide.

For Illinois students, scheduling exams proved difficult last year, when the pandemic hit in the spring and school districts abruptly shut down for extended periods. National testing dates for the ACT and SAT were canceled time and again.

Many Illinois students take the SAT just once — for free at school — and don't have access elsewhere, so the Illinois State Board of Education, with permission from the federal government, waived its completion as a graduation requirement for students who are now 12th graders.

Now Illinois schools must offer the SAT to current juniors in April or have them test as seniors in October, according to ISBE. The U.S. Department of Education won't allow districts to skip assessments for a second year, saying data is needed to assess student progress and learning loss.

But it's still not clear how many chances applicants will have to test.

"I don't want a student to be traveling great distances to take the SAT or ACT again because he or she isn't happy with their score," said Borst, the U. of I. undergraduate admissions director.

That seemed to be a challenge for international students too. Borst said many likely struggled to find testing opportunities since international students comprised the largest group to apply without exams, despite historically scoring well. With more than 7,600 international students enrolled in fall 2020, U. of I. boasts one of the largest populations of international scholars of any American university.

Yet for students everywhere, the biggest question is the same: Will applying without tests be a disadvantage?

Borst said there was no significant different in acceptance rates between students who submitted test scores and students who didn't, when comparing candidates within the same grade-point average.

"What we learned through the review cycle this year is that, by and large, test scores acted more as confirmation for us," Borst said, explaining that students who chose challenging classes and earned impressive grades tended to also have high test scores while students with worse grades and less rigorous courses had lower scores.

Borst declined to share total application numbers for this cycle, saying they're still in flux. But schools across the country have reported a surge in undergraduate applications, which some attribute to the more lenient test-optional protocols.


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PCC Higher Ed Policy Quarterly Vol. 1 Issue 1—March 16, 2021


 Letter from the Executive Director

One of the most repeated phrases of the last year is that COVID-19 has laid bare inequities in our society. Those inequities may be news to some but have long been the lived realities of millions of people in the United States and in the state of Illinois. Factors that have become apparent to some (inequitable access to digital resources, the financial vulnerability of even moderate income families, inequitable access to health care and education) have limited the possibilities of generations of Illinoisans. Those limitations can only be lifted and equity promoted through concerted effort by leaders at all levels. Read More.


 Snapshot of Federal Higher Education Policy

Colleges and students have been hit hard by COVID-19, and federal relief has stepped in to mitigate some of that loss, in a way that has prioritized low-income students. This includes the passage of the CARES Act in March 2020, the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSA) in December 2020, and the recently passed American Rescue Plan. For more information see the blog on our website, but here are a few quick takeaways from these packages:

Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds (HEERF)
The CARES Act provided $500 million to higher education in Illinois, half to students in the form of emergency grants and half to institutions. Among other things, institutions used these funds to provide faculty and staff training for online instruction, replace lost revenue from non-tuition sources like parking, food service, and child care, and to subsidize the cost of high-speed internet to students or faculty for online instruction. CRRSA will send an estimated $750 million to Illinois colleges and universities, though only 1/3rd of that has to go to students. The distribution of CARES was equitable in terms of sending more aid to institutions with more full-time Pell-eligible students, and CRRSA built on that by also considering part-time student enrollments, who are more likely to be parents, essential workers, and students of color.

The recently passed American Rescue Plan (ARP) will send an additional $1.3 billion to Illinois higher education, with half of that going toward emergency grants for students. Despite all of the federal funding in CARES, CRRSA, and the ARP, public colleges and universities are still facing far more losses than funding infusions in the wake of COVID-19, so the American Rescue Plan is needed to help close these gaps.

Governor's Emergency Education Relief (GEER) Funds
All three stimulus packages include discretionary funds that can be distributed by state governors to provide assistance to students and families through school districts, institutions of higher education, and other education-related organizations. CARES included $108 million in GEER funds that Governor Pritzker distributed $27 million to public universities and $18 million to community colleges based on a formula that like CARES weighed Pell-eligible students, but also gave more funds to institutions with greater percentages of low-income students, and further considered part-time students. Some institutions used the first allocation of GEER funds to provide loaner technology to students, investment in retention efforts, or provide financial support to students for non-tuition-related costs like books and childcare. CRRSA included about $50 million in GEER funds, but the Governor has not released plans for how those funds will be distributed. The American Rescue Plan will include additional funding for colleges, universities, and the Illinois budget, but does not include any GEER funding.

Federal Aid Changes
In addition to federal relief to students and institutions, the CRRSA omnibus bill included some much-needed improvements to the federal Pell grant program, including simplifying the Free Application for Financial Student Aid (FAFSA) form from 108 questions down to 36 and making technical changes that will qualify an additional 550,000 students for aid, and 1.7 million more students will now be able to receive the full award.


Snapshot of Illinois Higher Education Policy

Looking Back—Lame Duck Session
This year started off with a historic lame-duck session that resulted in several comprehensive bills addressing racism in Illinois' largest systems. The Partnership had the privilege to work alongside the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus to help advance the education omnibus, HB2170, a bill aimed at reversing historic systemic racism in education, from birth to career that included several policies that dismantle barriers to Black student success and advance equity including policies on developmental education, minority teacher scholarships, and financial aid reform. Now that the Governor has signed the bill, the Partnership is developing tools and resources to assist colleges and universities in implementation. To learn more about the bill, see our advocacy partner Advance Illinois' detailed summary here.

Looking Ahead—102nd General Assembly
Now Illinois legislators are back to work and focused on budget negotiations and bills responsive to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. To date, over 200 bills have been filed that could impact higher education. We highlight two relevant bills below and you can click here to see a snapshot of some of the other Illinois higher education bills we're tracking.

  • Test-Optional Admissions: Representative Latoya Greenwood refiled HB226, which requires colleges and universities to implement test-optional admissions policies, eliminating requirements that students submit a standardized test score for admissions. While many universities have made this shift in response to COVID-19 disruptions, those policies could be reversed at any time. The push for test-optional admissions is built on research that shows that compared to measures like GPA, test scores track more closely with income and race than a student's college readiness. Further highlighting the risk of the standardized test requirement exacerbating inequity, recent research suggests that lower-income students have lower SAT scores at the end of the month when SNAP benefits tend to run out. For more information, see our fact sheet in support of HB226 here.

Want to learn more about a bill's impact on higher education equity? We're happy to help. Email Emily Goldman at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. to let us know what you would like us to cover next.

Budget Updates
In Governor Pritzker's proposed budget for FY22, higher education escaped with level-funding and even saw an increase of $28 million in the Monetary Award Program (MAP). While PCC appreciates the financial constraints our state is currently facing, we also know that investment in higher education is critical to the future of our economy, and investment in MAP, can change the trajectory of thousands of Illinois students. That's why the Partnership will continue to advocate for adequate and equitable higher education funding and an additional $50 million investment in MAP. To join us in action, see our Take Action section below.

See PCC's full legislative agenda for 2021 here. 


Other States' Bills We're Tracking

To help inform Illinois higher education policy, PCC is tracking legislation in other states that could improve equity in access and completion. Here are a few bills we have our eyes on and related articles with more information.

In fall 2020, Michigan became the first state to offer tuition support for frontline workers, creating a tuition-free college program for the estimated 625,000 Michiganders who provided essential, frontline services between April – June 2020. Following in Michigan's footsteps, Illinois, Alaska, and New York recently introduced legislation that would create new grant funding for essential workers. To address the sustainability of these programs, states should consider leveraging federal funds to support these programs.

Carefully redesigned admission policies (like direct admissions and test-optional policies) can have a significant impact on equity in access to higher education and boost enrollment at Illinois' colleges and universities. Learning from Idaho's direct admissions program which proactively admits students to college, both Minnesota and Illinois have introduced legislation that would create new direct admissions programs. To prioritize equity in access to higher education, programs should be test-optional friendly, include program evaluation, and simplify the application process as much as possible.

For-profit colleges are among the most costly college options in Illinois, leading to students taking out large amounts of debt they too often default on. In past recessions this sector has grown, taking advantage of students' ambition but offering degrees that may not lead to more opportunities. Some states are taking it upon themselves to hold these institutions accountable, including Oregon with their HB 2197 bill. This would create a "90/10 rule," where at least 10% of a college's revenue must come from private (non-federal) sources.


Get to Know Illinois' Leaders—Interview with Sen. Scott Bennett
Senator Scott Bennett of Champaign, a longtime advocate for equity in higher education, was appointed this year to the role of chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee. Senator Bennett, a Democrat who has served in the legislature since 2015, represents an area that includes University of Illinois, Parkland College, and Danville Area Community College. Senator Bennett has pushed for increased funding of higher education, as well as the equitable funding formula for Illinois' P-12 education system.

In the first installment of our quarterly interview series "Get to Know Illinois' Leaders," we heard from Sen. Bennett about his priorities for higher ed in Illinois. Read more. 


Illinois Equity in Attainment (ILEA) Happenings

The Illinois Equity in Attainment Initiative (ILEA) is the Partnership's signature effort to catalyze urgent action on college campuses across the state to eliminate racial and socioeconomic graduation disparities on their campuses and significantly increase completion rates for Black, Latinx, and low-income students.

Twenty-six public and private nonprofit colleges and universities are active participants in the ILEA cohort. 36% of all Illinois undergraduates are enrolled at ILEA institutions, which enroll 41% of all Illinois' Black and 64% Latinx undergraduates, respectively. To date, 21 ILEA institutions have published five-year Equity Plans citing key strategies to yield positive student outcomes through a racial equity lens.

The strategies in the Equity Plans include:

  • Redesigning onboarding, orientation, tutoring, developmental education, academic advising, and first-year experience programs to better support student success
  • Developing student mentoring programs specifically designed to support Black, Latinx, and first-generation students
  • Redesigning academic policies to better support student registration and payment processes
  • Creating professional development for faculty and staff to become student-ready institutions and revamping hiring and on-boarding of new staff with an equity lens

*Each quarter we'll share updates on the efforts of ILEA colleges and universities who are all working to close equity gaps on their campuses. 


Upcoming Events


📢 Take Action 1-2-3 📢

  1. READ & WEIGH IN. The Illinois Board of Higher Education is seeking feedback on the current draft of their 10-year strategic plan. You can review the current draft and submit comments here.
  2. REACH OUT. As students and families across the state continue to be impacted by the financial fall-out from COVID-19, advocacy for increased student aid and institutional supports is more critical than ever. Help us elevate this need by emailing your legislator to request an additional $50 million in MAP funding.
  3. SHARE. Share this newsletter with a friend by sharing this sign-up link.

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Special from the PCC Higher Education Policy Quarterly: Interview with State Sen. Scott Bennett

IL State Sen. Scott Bennett

Senator Scott Bennett of Champaign, a longtime advocate for equity in higher education, was appointed this year to the role of chair of the Senate HIgher Education Committee. Senator Bennett, a Democrat who has served in the legislature since 2015, represents an area that includes University of Illinois, Parkland College, and Danville Area Community College. Senator Bennett has pushed for increased funding of higher education, as well as the equitable funding formula for Illinois' P-12 education system.

In the first installment of our quarterly interview series "Get to Know Illinois Leaders" we heard from Sen. Bennett about his priorities for higher ed in Illinois.

As you reflect on the year ahead, what are your highest hopes for Illinois higher education? What are your greatest fears?

This session will mark my first year as the new Chairperson of the Illinois Senate Higher Education Committee, but I have been a member of that committee since my arrival in the legislature in 2015. In many respects, my hopes and fears for our work remains the same. The constant fear of budget cuts—compounded by revenue shortfalls and a shifting of prioritization that accompanied the pandemic—remain the biggest threat to our higher education system. My highest hopes revolve around continuing the work toward increasing opportunities for more of our citizens to access our state's institutions of higher education.

How will your leadership on the Higher Education Committee be similar to and different from that of your predecessor Senator Pat McGuire?

I learned so much from serving with the previous Chairperson of Higher Education, Senator Pat McGuire. Pat was a model Chair, who took so much time to travel to nearly all of the community colleges and universities in our state to see firsthand how state appropriations would be spent. I also admire the way that he tried to help higher education navigate the budget difficulties during the 2015-2017 budget impasse by looking to form bipartisan, and bicameral coalitions with the Higher Education Working Group. That was real leadership, and I hope to continue in his example.

Avoiding harmful cuts is a critical step toward sustaining higher education's capacity to adequately serve students and deliver much-needed supports throughout the pandemic, which Governor Pritzker has proposed through his budget's flat funding for colleges and universities and a $28 million increase in MAP. What are your priorities for funding higher education through the COVID-19 crisis?

The Governor has proposed level higher education funding in his 2021 budget proposals, but I would note that the individual universities we have already heard from in committee have requested modest increases. It will be a balancing act to find ways to make our institutions whole after most have spent millions dealing with the pandemic, as well as trying to find additional funds for MAP funding for our students most in need.

And as budgets are stretched thin and many colleges across the state are seeing their enrollment decline with affordability, how can we address the greater scale of these problems in the years beyond the pandemic?

The answer to that goes beyond what any one legislator can provide. The struggle remains in asking schools to do more while also improving access by keeping tuition low. All potential solutions are welcome for discussion in Springfield—particularly in the Senate Higher Education Committee

The Illinois Legislative Black Caucus had a historic lame duck session, passing monumental legislation aimed at dismantling inequitable policies and practices in Illinois' largest systems – including in higher education. It was a giant step forward, but there is still a lot of work to do to advance racial equity in Illinois. How do you see the legislature's role in advancing racial equity? What will be the greatest barrier to advancing these priorities?

The legislature took some very progressive steps in early 2021. For many members, these changes were long overdue, and for others the significant shifts were a bit disorienting. I expect that the legislature will continue on this progressive trend, and ultimately, I think it's a positive thing when members try to consider issues not from only their own—or their district's—perspective, but try and put themselves in the shoes of those who are affected differently. Individually, we are sent to Springfield to represent our districts, but as a body, the Senate (and House) should act in the best interests of the entire state.

Like last year, we're experiencing a unique legislative session faced with many unique challenges. What advice do you have for advocates working on higher education legislative or budget priorities this session?

The changes in communication since the beginning of the pandemic are obvious, and frankly, I am impressed with the way many advocates have adapted in lobbying their legislators. For the time being, only legislators and staff are physically allowed in the State Capital, but plans are evolving to allow committee witnesses in person (hopefully) soon. In the meantime, I am meeting with more constituents and advocates than ever via phone and Zoom conferences. Most legislative district offices are open, so I would advise reaching out to your own legislator in their district office, and finding out what avenues remain open to communicating with your representative or senator. At the very least, every legislative website allows for e-mail correspondence to either voice your opinion on an issue or request a longer conversation.

Anything else you would like to share with Illinois higher education advocates, institutions, or current/prospective students navigating higher education during these difficult times?

Hang in there. Higher Education in Illinois has undergone a rough decade or two, so there is no one in the field that underestimates the challenges we face. Nevertheless, I am impressed with the current legislature's understanding of the urgency of finding solutions (and funding) in the higher education appropriations. The *will* to help hasn't always been there in the legislature, but it is now. The will alone isn't enough, of course, but it's a welcome sight from my perspective, and helps put us on the path to recovery and reinvestment.

Read PCC's first Policy Quarterly newsletter today.

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PCC Executive Director Introduces New Higher Ed Policy Quarterly Newsletter

Kyle Westbrook, Ph.D.

One of the most repeated phrases of the last year is that COVID-19 has laid bare inequities in our society. Those inequities may be news to some but have long been the lived realities of millions of people in the United States and in the state of Illinois. Factors that have become apparent to some (inequitable access to digital resources, the financial vulnerability of even moderate income families, inequitable access to health care and education) have limited the possibilities of generations of Illinoisans. Those limitations can only be lifted and equity promoted through concerted effort by leaders at all levels.

The recent shift in federal policy towards open and unapologetic discussions of equity coupled with aggressive leadership from Illinois elected officials, most specifically, the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus, give us reason to be hopeful. However, with the nation's public health crisis showing signs of improvement, we have to remain vigilant that the inequities we've all been talking about since the pandemic's onset and the racial reckoning brought about by the killing of George Floyd, don't recede from our consciousness. We cannot afford for Illinois to once again settle into a predictable pattern of complacency and outright ambivalence towards the ways in which our systems privilege some and disadvantage others.

The Partnership for College Completion was founded in part on the belief that public policy plays a critical role in increasing equity and positively impacting the life outcomes of the tens of thousands of black, brown, and low-income college students in Illinois. Thus, PCC will continue to work with our state's elected officials to at times support and other times challenge them to enact policies that will lead to increased access and success for students in our state. We are excited to offer our first policy newsletter detailing important developments in our state and national policy landscape that we believe are important to creating the right conditions for student success and increased equity in our state.

In Partnership, 
Kyle Westbrook, Ph.D.
Read PCC's first Policy Quarterly today.

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Equity in Action

Dear ILEA Partners,

It has been wonderful to see many of your faces on Zoom in February as we conclude our first month of substantial ILEA programming of the new year. While we are grateful for the opportunity provided by virtual events and discussions to continue to engage and move our collective work forward during the pandemic, we miss the opportunity afforded by in-person engagement. The ILEA team is currently considering what our future mix of programming, virtual and in-person, will look like when we are again able to gather in the same space. We would love to hear from you as we develop plans for our professional development and convening supports in 2021-22 and beyond.

In this month of honoring Black history, I want to pose a question for us all to consider as practitioners of racial equity in higher education. How do we place undue burdens on our Black students as we seek to support them better?This remains true even as we acknowledge that today's racial disparities within our higher education system are derivative of historical and ongoing inequities connected to the design and culture of our colleges and universities; structural inequities that exist in our legal, banking, labor market, housing, voting, and other systems; as well as through the unacknowledged and lasting legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. As the events of this and last year have shown, white supremacy and racism remain, and are every bit as American as the stars and stripes. This week, as we surpass the grim milestone of more than half a million U.S. deaths due to COVID-19, which has had a disproportionately devastating impact on communities of color, we must carefully consider what we are asking of our students in the process of becoming more equitable institutions.

Where do we see examples of this happening? One such place is via the FAFSA verification process, discovered through an analysis conducted by the Washington Post. The investigation found that students are more likely to be selected from Black (1.8x more likely) and Latinx (1.4x more likely) neighborhoods for verification, a type of audit process that often requires several additional points of information. This onerous process causes between 11-25% of students selected to drop out of the FAFSA application process altogether, a phenomenon known as verification melt. We know many of those students may never show up at any college as a result.

On our campuses, this may show up in repeatedly asking our Black staff to be the only ones to lead discussions on race or racism. Among our historically white colleges and universities, students and staff of color may be the 'only' or one of the few in their classes, on the committee, or in the department. Continuing to ask the same people to explain how your institutions may not be serving them well, despite years of campus climate surveys and other forms of feedback, places undue burden on those students and staff, and can negatively affect retention. Bringing awareness to these realities and responding with action, is an important part of this work.

What can we do about this? First, this work requires a deep and sustained commitment to self-reflection. This must happen regularly at the level of the individual, the team, and the institution. Second, we must commit to broadening the number of individuals who speak clearly about equity, what it means to our institutions, and why it matters. All ILEA leadership team members and department heads should work to become fluent in the language of higher education equity, and continue to build the army of equity agents within your institutions. Finally, resources in the form of books, case studies, Ted talks, PCC webinars and events, and others exist to support your continued progress on equity. One Chicago-based foundation, College Beyond, framed it this way in a guidebook they produced: Why am I Always Being Researched? This publication examines how a power imbalance exists that influences what we ask students and how.

I encourage you to consider how this may be true within your own institutions. As we survey students to gather critical data, how can we ensure we are removing barriers and not placing additional roadblocks in the way of student success?As we create new required touchpoints with students, how do we make sure these are supportive of their success and not deterrents to their continued persistence? How do we ensure we are not pathologizing students who are overcoming incredible challenges to complete their degrees?

Thank you for all you do every day to change the narrative of historic inequity in Illinois higher education. Your leadership is paving the way for more significant change across the state and nation, and the students you graduate will be those that continue to do better for every subsequent generation.

In partnership for equity,


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Illinois revamps college-level developmental education with goal of improving completion rates


February 2021

by Tim Anderson - Stateline Midwest

This past summer, following the killing of George Floyd, legislators across the country began asking questions about racial justice and disparities in their own states. Among them was Illinois Rep. Carol Ammons, and one of her questions, along with other leaders in her state's Legislative Black Caucus, was this: "Is this just a police issue?"
"Our answer was no," she says.
Their legislative response was to develop a sweeping policy agenda built on four pillars: criminal justice reform, economic equity and opportunity, health care and education. Much of the work on that last pillar fell to Ammons, last year's chair of the House Higher Education Committee. Her efforts culminated in January with the passage of HB 2170. The measure seeks changes at all levels of the education system, with an overarching goal of advancing racial equity.
On the higher-education side, one piece of that bill illustrates the kind of systematic reforms being sought. It has to do with how the state's community colleges deliver developmental education to students, and how these institutions choose who takes part in this coursework.
Developmental education is remedial instruction in subjects such as English and math, often traditionally taken before students can move on to college-level, credit-bearing courses. State-level reforms in this policy area became "a centerpiece," Ammons says, in part because of what legislators learned in committee testimony over the summer.
In Illinois, almost half of high school graduates enrolled full-time in a community college are placed in developmental education. Among minority students, this rate is even higher — nearly 71 out of every 100 Black students, for example, and among this group, only six of 100 go on to graduate.
"The traditional developmental-education courses cost students time, money and financial aid, but they don't count toward college credit," Ammons says. "It becomes a barrier."

HB 2170 seeks to change that.

First, community colleges must look beyond standardized test scores and college-placement tests when determining who gets placed in remedial education. For example, a graduating high school student who has a high grade-point average or who has successfully completed college-level or transitional classes must be placed in credit-bearing courses.

Second, HB 2170 uproots the traditional developmental-education approach, calling for it to be replaced with an "evidence-based model that maximizes a student's likelihood of completing an introductory college-level course within his or her first two semesters."

One likely result: community colleges' adoption of a "co-requisite model," under which students are placed directly into college-level coursework with concurrent instructional supports.

"What we've seen with the traditional model is that 18 percent of Black students in math and 29 percent in English completed a gateway course with a C or better in three years," says Emily Goldman, senior policy manager for the Partnership for College Completion.

"With the co-requisite model, it's 69 percent and 64 percent."

Illinois isn't alone in seeking these kinds of policy changes. More states around the country are recognizing the traditional model as an obstacle to postsecondary completion, says Nikki Edgecombe, a senior research scholar at the Community College Research Center.

The loss of time and money (including the possible exhaustion of financial aid) while taking remedial courses are factors, she notes, but so is the impact on a student's academic outlook.

"It can be demotivating for a student, 'I applied to college, they let me in, and now they won't let me take college classes,' " Edgecombe says. "Getting students into and through their gateway courses is important to generating academic momentum." 


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Building Bridges Across Student Services to Foster Social Belonging — Even Amid Crisis

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) implement their Equity Plans for their campuses, the role and engagement of student affairs practitioners remains integral. Therefore, the PCC team made the deliberate choice to host a conference with them in mind. The theme of our 2021 ILEA Winter Equity Institute – Building Bridges Across Student Services to Foster Social Belonging – is meant to underscore a commitment to cultivating a campus environment where all who enter the space feel like they matter and that they belong.

As the Partnership for College Completion gears up for next week's Institute, hear from student development champions at Loyola University Chicago, Olive-Harvey, and Elgin Community College as they provide timely insights on how the convergence of a global pandemic, economic crisis, and the enduring legacy of racism has called them to be innovative and collaborative in reaching students.

Loyola University Chicago
Ashley Williams, M.S.Ed. 
Associate Director for Special Populations, New Students Programs, Student Academic Services
Pronouns: she, her, hers
Olive-Harvey College, City Colleges of Chicago
Michelle Adams  
Dean of Student Services
Pronouns: she, her, hers
Elgin Community College
Rodrigo Lopez
Assistant Dean of College in High School Programs
Division of College Transitions and Secondary Programs

Partnership for College Completion (PCC): How have the effects of COVID-19 and the legacy of racism in America affected the way you develop and deliver services to your students?

Ashley Williams, M.S.Ed. (AW): In a way, our team had to start over. I had to unlearn a lot of repeated oppressive rhetoric. I now work through a clearer double consciousness that prioritizes the needs of the oppressed, without fear, I might add. Sometimes I worry if I am not acknowledging all the grief our students are facing. We must recognize all that is happening to our students and consider the factors in our discovery and decision-making stages. I try to imagine all the things a student is carrying with them and consider ways to help them put something down. My team understands that now is not the time to prioritize signature experiences above all else. Being student-centered during COVID-19 means making room for changes as we go along.

Michelle Adams (MA): Olive-Harvey has always understood our population and the importance of delivering services to them. We know that prior to Covid-19 our students always needed that in person connection or JIT approach of "we are here". Overnight we pivoted to virtual communication, created focus groups, increased department touchpoints and availability. When the civil unrest happened, we gave our students virtual spaces to have conversation about how they were feeling about Covid and the impacts of Racism happening before our eyes.

Rodrigo Lopez (RL): We have been highly-critical and vigilant of our procedures that may limit students' access to dual credit coursework. As an example, we have worked with our school districts to improve opportunities for students to meet program requirements, which requires that we collectively acknowledge the fact that certain policies have the potential to counter any and all progress to improve minoritized students' success.

PCC: There is extensive research supporting the impact on students - especially students of color - when they have staff who share similar racial and ethnic backgrounds. What practices or policies would you recommend for institutions to effectively recruit and retain staff of color?

AW: I have many thoughts on the current state of staff of color retention in higher education, but I would sum them up in two themes: ethical conflicts and disingenuous messages. At the highest levels of an institution, individuals must challenge the definition of leadership and diversity. From there, empower individuals responsible for staff wellbeing by giving them the breathing room and resources to make necessary changes.

Institutions should also invest in affinity spaces that promote a greater sense of belonging and do so with some enthusiasm. People want to know the work they are doing matters. It is a simple practice of acknowledgment and gratitude.


  • Encouraging staff to join and participate in organizations that develop them professionally shows support.
  • Create a welcoming atmosphere for staff and students to join campus committees and share their diverse opinions and backgrounds.
  • As a leader, participate in DEI conversations that may be "uncomfortable" so that you expand your knowledge and understanding and help grow your institution. Challenge colleagues to do the same to create an example for staff.
  • Look at your student population, does your staff, faculty and administration mirror that at all levels? Practices such as succession planning and diverse hiring committees, can make staff and students feel welcomed and valued.

RL: Having worked for three separate Hispanic-Serving Institutions, I believe that institutions can be successful in diversifying their workforce by integrating this into their operational plans. Whenever possible, incorporate internal staff of color in the process and leverage their leadership. Stay connected to the community and build purposeful recruitment networks to maximize the opportunities for professionals to engage with the institution.

PCC: How has collaboration taken on new meaning in how your department and/or institution functions during Covid-19?

AW: Simply put, collaboration is how we hold each other upright during COVID-19. Most professionals I work with and know are working at the highest levels of capacity. Collaboration has become a strategy for survival more than a desire to create new partnerships. In many ways, the act itself has become a vessel for challenging systemic dysfunction within organizations. My advice is to use collaboration as a tool to challenge norms and interrogate systems. We identify a unified voice in collaborative spaces and help those least often provided with a platform be seen and heard. It is pretty powerful when you think about it like that.

MA: We work harder at communicating effectively with each other due to increased use of email. Academic Departments have developed protocols with Student Service departments to eliminate student barriers. Staying committed to creating initiatives to impact student success has been helpful. Examples include: curbside food pantry service, afterhours peer mentoring and technology tutoring.

RL: Trust and self-care. Many of our processes and services have had to be reinvented - often more than once. As such, we have had to rely on each other to share the brunt of the work and remind ourselves that we can step away to regroup whenever necessary.

PCC: As you reflect on your own career and experiences with students, what are 3 primary skills that practitioners need in their toolbox to make positive change(s) today?

AW: First, I would say intrusive advising skills. COVID-19 and the remote learning experience forces us to think differently. We have an opportunity to learn from our students by increasing our interactions with them and listening for real concerns.

Second, I offer up emotional intelligence—the strategy contributing to seeing change through. You must know how to listen and observe. Take more time to name the barriers we are facing before jumping into the work. We want individuals to go above and beyond, but we may be missing the chance to create the right kind of space for them to thrive.

And lastly, you have to know yourself, and I mean TRULY know yourself and your worth. In the earlier stages of my career, I found it easier to hide my strengths for the team's betterment, but I realize that served no one as I look back. In this phase of my career, I am prioritizing self-preservation and purpose.


  • Be willing to think outside of your normal box and invite others to be creative with you.
  • Having Compassion for students allows us to identify how we can make a difference
  • Don't stop learning, what you learn today can help you support students tomorrow

RL: Learn from your students and their communities. Become an active participant in promoting student success. Promote, support, and celebrate student advocacy.

Learn more about the ILEA initiative today. 

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Member Spotlight: Meet Marisol Velázquez, Morton College


1. What is your current role/title?

I have the pleasure of serving as the Dean of Student Services at Morton College. Recently, celebrated my 13th year anniversary with the college.

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

Currently, I'm pursuing a Doctorate in Education from DePaul University, earned a Master's degree in Urban Planning and Policy and hold a B.A. in Liberal Arts and Sciences from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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

Morton College has supported me in more ways than one through my educational journey. I am eternally grateful for the ongoing support that the college has provided. Morton College has been extremely supportive and encouraging by offering not only systems of support, mentorship but also financial assistance through our tuition reimbursement. My colleagues are my biggest supporters and I'm grateful for their guidance and positive outlook. Our President, Dr. Stan Fields is who encouraged me to begin pursing my doctorate. Without his encouragement and mentorship, I would not be in the final phase of my doctorate.

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

Working for a Hispanic Serving Institution where our student body is composed of a large majority of minoritized students, we have a responsibility to institutionalize equity minded practices. I am excited about our equity work because we are not working as individuals but as an institution to remove existing disparities. We have an opportunity to create real impact in our student's lives and the lives of their families. It's truly exciting to experience that together we are challenging a system that for long has disadvantaged our students and community. We are challenging more than the "this is how it was done before" mentality and breaking down barriers that ensure our students graduate and persist. Lastly, witnessing others wanting to be part of equity initiatives gives me confidence that change is inevitable.

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

As a first-generation college student, who worked multiple jobs to afford college, raised by single mother of four, I have lived the same struggles many of our students are currently facing. One of the ways that my role impacts equitable outcomes is by having a seat at the table and sharing my lens with the decision makers to ensure our students' needs are recognized and addressed. Being in my position allows me to develop, introduce and execute equity initiatives such as ILEA. Being part of the ILEA Cohort expands on the institution's commitment to racial equity. The college recognizes the transformation that needs to take place in order to be equity leaders in removing the inequitable conditions ingrained in the fabric of our education system. Our equity plan is our pledge to hold our self and the institution accountable to closing equity gaps.

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2021 ILEA Winter Equity Institute Recap


The Partnership for College Completion (PCC) held its first-ever virtual Winter Equity Institute on February 18-19, 2021, with over 300 staff from 26 institutions in attendance! 

The theme of the Winter Equity Institute was Building Bridges Across Student Services to Foster Social Belonging and the event was designed for staff and practitioners from student affairs, student development, and holistic support services personnel.

The first day of the Institute focused on building holistic supports for students with an equity lens. Highlights included a keynote address titled, "Racial Equity in our Colleges and Universities: An Imperative Call to Action" led by Dr. Frank Harris, III, Professor of postsecondary education and Co-Director of the Community College Equity Assessment Lab (CCEAL) at San Diego State University. 

Other Day 1 highlights included a "Prioritizing Holistic Care in Student Services" panel led by ILEA practitioners Tania Boisson from Oakton Community College, Jacquelyn Werner & Eric Crabtree-Nelson from Harold Washington College, and Dr. Aurélio Valente from National Louis University as well as a session titled, "Strategies for Culturally Responsive Mental Health Support for Diverse Students" led by Dr. Sofia Pertuz, Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer from the JED Foundation. Dr. Harris closed out the first day the Institute with the workshop, "Beyond the Plan: How to Ensure Your Equity Efforts Achieve Their Desired Results."

Highlights of the second day of the Institute focused on building supports for practitioners and professionals of color and featured a "Student Teach-In" session led by members of PCC's Student Advisory Council, Ahmed Elfaki from Kishwaukee College, Lauren Hassen from Moraine Valley Community College, Daliyah Sanders from Harper College, Marketta Sims from City Colleges of Chicago: Kennedy-King, and Marnee Ostoa from City Colleges of Chicago: Harold Washington. The session featured recorded remarks from Gaylen Rivers from Northern Illinois University and Karen Suarez from Oakton Community College.

Other Day 2 highlights included the opening session "The Art of Retaining Women of Color Professionals" led by higher education professionals and founding members of Career Killing Moves, Dr. Paige Gardner, Dr. Kristina Garcia, and Dr. Pearl Ratunil. This was followed by the "Widening the Leadership Pipeline for Professionals of Color" panel led by Dr. Edward F. Martinez from Suffolk County Community College - Ammerman Campus, Jamar Orr from Roosevelt University, and Marisol Velazquez from Morton College.  Dr. Kyle Westbrook, PCC's Executive Director wrapped up the 2021 ILEA Winter Equity Institute with a reflection of the event.

Institute by the Numbers:

  • Total Number of Attendees: 308
  • Highest Session Attendance 
    • Welcome & Keynote (240 attendees)
    • Strategies for Mental Health (150 attendees)
    • Art of Retaining Women of Color (142 attendees)
  • Highest Overall Participation (2-yr): College of Lake County
  • Highest Overall Participation (4-yr): Northeastern Illinois University
  • Top WHOVA Engagers: Scott Friedman (Moraine Valley Community College), Daiana Quiroga-Nevares (Morton College), and Betsi Burns (Loyola University)
  • Institute Evaluation, Quality of the Institute:
    • 94% of respondents rated the quality of the overall Winter Equity Institute as either excellent or very good
    • Of all the Institute sessions, the opening keynote and the Art of Retaining Women of Color Professionals were ranked highest in terms of usefulness to participants' equity work.
    • 100% of survey respondents acknowledged that the Institute was helpful in moving forward their understanding of how to achieve equity in student outcomes at their campus.
    • Top comments:
  • "Great topics! Thank you for the student panel. I hope to see them included in future programming."
    "The presenters were awesome with real stories that relate to the students and families we serve."
    "I loved the enthusiasm, sincerity, and dedication of the presenters!"
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Letter to Congress on Student and Taxpayer Protections


February 2, 2021

Dear Member of Congress:

Welcome to the 117th Congress. As 53 organizations working on behalf of students, consumers, veterans, faculty and staff, civil rights advocates, researchers, and others concerned about unaffordable student debts and predatory practices, we are providing an outline of our coalition's higher education priorities. As Congress continues to consider reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) and to evaluate other higher education proposals, including COVID-19 related aid, we strongly urge you to support policies that strengthen safeguards for taxpayers and students, including low-income students and students of color.

The federal government plays a critical role in putting higher education within reach for millions of Americans, by providing grants and loans to help finance their education. But the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated a shift to unproven online education, and has led to enormous job loss. Similar economic circumstances have historically driven dramatic enrollment increases, particularly at for-profit colleges.i

Unfortunately, some colleges engage in predatory practices that can mislead or defraud students, and can consistently leave students with worthless degrees and debts they cannot afford.ii The data clearly demonstrate that a disproportionate number of these institutions are privately owned and operated on a for-profit basis.iii Veterans, low-income students, and students of color have been specifically targeted and disproportionately harmed by predatory colleges.iv Taxpayers are investing billions of dollars in for-profit colleges each year via federal student financial aid programs.v But too often, students are left with degrees or diplomas that are not respected in the job Too frequently students leave these schools with high debt but with no degree or diploma.vii One study has shown that students at for-profit colleges default almost four times as often as students attending community colleges.viii

Meanwhile, racial inequity is fueled by predatory colleges that disproportionately enroll students of color. Black and Latino students attending for-profit colleges are less likely to complete programs, and borrow an average of $10,000 more than Black and Latino students attending public colleges.ix

Over the past four years, regulations and other protections intended to address these well-documented problems, including the Department of Education's "borrower defense to repayment rule" and "gainful employment rule," have been rolled back or rescinded. Thousands of borrowers, including many veterans, who have demonstrated that they were misled and lied to by their colleges, continue to fight to cancel their student loans.x

Meanwhile, new borrowers are faced with a borrower defense rule that was opposed by bipartisan majorities in the House and Senate, and that will make it virtually impossible for any student to cancel student loans taken based on lies by a college, and no college is likely to have to pay back the cost of loans cancelled due to misconduct.

As you continue to work toward an overdue HEA reauthorization, and to consider other legislative proposals impacting higher education including measures specific to the COVID-19 pandemic, we ask that you ensure that common-sense protections for students and taxpayers are improved. Specifically, we seek to ensure that four core existing protections are restored, enforced, and strengthened in any higher education legislation: the 90-10 rule, borrower defense to repayment, gainful employment, and the ban on incentive compensation.

90/10 Rule

The 90/10 Rule is an important and long-standing HEA provision that ensures for-profit colleges demonstrate market viability by forbidding for-profit corporations from being wholly dependent on federal funds.xi The rule has its genesis in the early GI Bill and is intended to ensure that taxpayer funds are not used to prop-up a subpar, failing enterprise. A college or school offering a quality education at a competitive price should be able to attract other sources of tuition from employers, scholarship providers, state funds, and students themselves. It is important in preventing waste, fraud, and abuse in higher education.

However, under current law, education funds from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (including the GI Bill) and the U.S. Department of Defense (including "Tuition Assistance") were inadvertently left out of the statute, and are not required to be counted as federal funds.xii This loophole has the unfortunate consequence of incentivizing for-profit schools to target veterans, service members, and their families with aggressive and deceptive recruiting tactics in order to gain access to their GI Bill and military tuition aid. Additionally, the thresholds set by the rule have been lowered from the original 85/15 set in 1992. The important purpose of the 90/10 rule must be restored by closing the loophole and returning to an 85/15 threshold.

Borrower Defense to Repayment

The HEA includes a provision that allows for "borrower defense to repayment." The provision allows a student's financial aid obligations to be discharged if a borrower demonstrates loans were agreed to as a result of misrepresentation, fraud, or other illegal conduct. While the provision has been law for many years, it was rarely asserted, and no clear process was established for students to seek relief. The collapse of Corinthian Colleges and ITT Tech brought broad public attention to pervasive fraudulent misrepresentations made to students by these and other predatory colleges, and resulted in a surge of claims filed by students. In 2016, a regulation was adopted to set forth a process that helped to ensure that neither defrauded students nor taxpayers are left on the hook for wrongdoing by schools, and provided automatic loan cancellation to students whose schools closed suddenly.xiii

Rather than using the process created by the 2016 rule to address the claims of the more than 140,000 student borrowers who have filed claims, and recover funds from colleges that engage in misleading tactics, that rule was replaced in 2019 with a new rule making it virtually impossible for borrowers who have been lied to succeed in cancelling their loans.xiv While bipartisan majorities in both the House and the Senate voted to stop the 2019 borrower defense rule, it is now in effect.xv Meanwhile, thousands of student borrowers continue to fight to cancel more than a fraction of their student loans administratively and in court.xvi Students must have a clear and straightforward path to complete loan discharges when the school they attended has been engaged in misconduct, students must be able to automatically discharge loans when schools close suddenly, and the Department of Education must be able to recover the cost of cancelled loans from colleges.

Gainful Employment

The HEA requires that all career education programs offered at public, non-profit, and for-profit colleges receiving federal student aid dollars "prepare students for gainful employment in a recognized occupation." A rule finalized in 2014 explained what gainful employment required: that programs provide basic information about how many students get jobs, how much they earn, and how much debt they have, and that those programs that continuously left their graduates with more debt than they can repay must improve or lose eligibility for federal funding.xviiixvii The regulation worked to drive improvement, with 9 in 10 colleges having no failing programs in 2016. Nonetheless, in 2019 the Department of Education rescinded the rule at an estimated cost to taxpayers of $6 billion. A strong gainful employment requirement must become permanent and be fully implemented.

Incentive Compensation Ban

The Higher Education Act's ban on incentive compensation (commissioned sales) was enacted with strong bipartisan support in 1992 to reduce high-pressure, deceptive sales tactics in college admissions. Congressional intent was that colleges should not reward individuals or third parties for enrolling students, by paying commissions or bonuses based on the number of students enrolled, because it puts the financial interests of college employees, and their associates, before the needs of students.

In 2015, the Department of Education's Inspector General called for greater oversight and enforcement of the ban on incentive compensation, in order to provide greater protection for students and taxpayers.xix Instead, there has been little enforcement of the ban, while colleges have increasingly relied on the Departments guidance document to contract with third party "online program managers" compensated on the basis of the number of students enrolled.xx The incentive compensation ban must be better enforced to prevent abusive recruiting and sales tactics by colleges.

Additional Proposals

We also support other legislative efforts to strengthen the integrity of colleges and prevent abusive tactics, specifically ensuring that the cohort default rate is not subject to manipulation; that resources are directed towards students via instruction and support services rather than primarily spent on marketing advertising and compensation; that colleges, particularly those converting from for-profit to non-profit or public status, have robust governance structures in place to prevent private inurement and independent decision making, and to make sure that accreditors and state authorizers uphold their role in the higher education triad.

We would like to offer ourselves as a resource and look forward to working together with this Congress to make certain that common-sense laws and regulations are strengthened and enforced, and to ensure the efficient use of taxpayer dollars by colleges. We urge you to support strong higher education policies that minimize waste, fraud, and abuse in higher education, and that protect students, their families, and the taxpaying public from predatory practices at some colleges.


American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME)
American Federation of Teachers
Americans for Financial Reform
Campaign for America's Future
Center for American Progress
Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP)
Center for Public Interest Law
Center for Responsible Lending
Children's Advocacy Institute
Clearinghouse on Women's Issues
Consumer Action
Consumer Federation of California
CWA Local 1081
Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation
David Halperin, Attorney
Democrats for Education Reform
East Bay Community Law Center
Education Reform Now
Generation Progress
Government Accountability Project
Higher Education Loan Coalition
Hildreth Institute
Housing and Economic Rights Advocates
Maine Center for Economic Policy
Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition
National Association for College Admission Counseling
National Association of Consumer Advocates
National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys (NACBA)
National Consumer Law Center (on behalf of its low-income clients)
National Education Association
New America Higher Education Program
New York State Association for College Admission Counseling
Partnership for College Completion
Project on Predatory Student Lending
Public Citizen
Public Counsel
Public Good Law Center
Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts (PHENOM)
Public Law Center
Robert Shireman, Director of Higher Education Excellence, The Century Foundation
Service Employees International Union (SEIU)
Student Debt Crisis
Student Defense
Student Veterans of America
The Education Trust
The Institute for College Access & Success
U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG)
Veterans Education Success
Veterans for Common Sense
Woodstock Institute
Young Invincibles

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


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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Illinois Is Reforming Developmental Education. Here's Why Advocates Say It's A Racial Equity Issue


January 19, 2021


Nearly half of Illinois high school grads who enroll full-time at a community college get placed in a developmental education course. That includes 70% of Black students and, of them, only 8% graduate compared to 26% of white students.

Those classes cost students tuition money and time, but don't count for credit towards a degree. Emily Goldman, with the Partnership for College Completion, helped lawmakers craft the Developmental Education Reform Act to address the issue.

The act is part of the Legislative Black Caucus' education reform bill which passed through the Illinois legislature during the lame duck session.

"We really believe we can't talk about advancing racial equity in Illinois higher education without talking about how we're going to reform our development education system," said Goldman.

She says community colleges over-rely on placement tests. That leads to over-placing Black students in those courses. The new plan allows students to show proficiency in other ways. They can get into college-level courses through high school GPA or transition classes.

"Forty-five community colleges will implement the traditional model at some level, despite its ineffectiveness," said Goldman. "When you hear that, and you know how it affects the rate of completion of college-level coursework -- I think it's pretty alarming."

Most students are still placed in the traditional model. Goldman says the most promising alternative is placing students in college-level courses with concurrent supports so their graduation isn't delayed.

In the current model, 18% of Black students in developmental math courses completed their first for-credit math class with a "C" or higher within three years. But with the alternative, Goldman says that jumps up to 69%.

The new proposal also requires colleges to submit plans for evidence-based developmental ed reforms, and issue reports on the results of their policy shifts over the next several years.

Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker is expected to sign the plan into law.


This report was also featured on Tri States Public Radio ILLINOIS.

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IBHE Announces Members of New Strategic Planning Advisory Committee


January 13, 2021

By IBHE - My Radio Link

SPRINGFIELD – The Illinois Board of Higher Education is announcing the members of its Strategic Planning Advisory Committee, which will develop a draft plan to fulfill the board's which will lay out a set of strategies to achieve the board's vision and priorities. The plan aims to create an equitable, accessible and innovative higher education ecosystem across Illinois that ensures students and communities thrive.

"The members of the advisory committee bring expertise from education, business, policy, community, and philanthropic organizations to shape the blueprint for our students and our higher education ecosystem for the next 10 years," said IBHE Board Chair John Atkinson. "The members of the advisory committee will identify the highest-impact strategies to increase affordability, close equity gaps, and meet workforce needs. I am thrilled that this group has agreed to help us chart a course for higher education in Illinois."

The strategic plan is being crafted in cooperation with the Illinois Community College Board and the Illinois Student Assistance Commission. It has garnered widespread public engagement so far, including the input from a survey of 10,000 people, 20 regional focus groups, and written comments. There will be room for more public engagement in each step of the process.

The committee will be co-chaired by:
Zaldwaynaka Scott, President, Chicago State University
Juan Salgado, Chancellor, City Colleges of Chicago
Illinois Senator Pat McGuire
Betsy Ziegler, CEO, 1871

"At each step in the process, we have invited input on how to ensure Illinois has an equitable, innovative and nimble higher education system. The advisory committee will help chart the path to get us there," explained IBHE Executive Director Ginger Ostro.

Co-Chair Zaldwaynaka Scott, president of Chicago State University, said, "I want to ensure that our higher education system makes the changes needed to alter the outcomes for students of color, because for too long they have been underserved. IBHE data will clearly tell us whether this new plan will make a difference."

"This new plan must address the importance of an aligned education system," said Co-Chair Juan Salgado, chancellor, City Colleges of Chicago. "Higher education needs to better serve the varied needs of our increasingly diverse, life-long learners, whether it be at two-year or four-year colleges and universities, public or private, or credential programs."

Co-Chair Sen. Pat McGuire, who chairs the Illinois Senate's Higher Education Committee, explained, "Illinois post-secondary students and institutions have demonstrated their commitment to education throughout the Great Recession, the two-year budget impasse, and the COVID-19 pandemic. It's time we acted with equal determination and laid plans for a higher education system that's fair to all students, all community colleges and universities, and all parts of the state."

Recognizing that the input and support of the business community is critical to this effort, 1871 CEO Betsy Ziegler will join the committee as a co-chair. "Employers know the nature of work is changing rapidly and that partnership with our higher education system is essential. Preparing students for jobs and civic life are critical to our companies and our economy, as is the innovation and research that come from a strong higher education system" she said. "We must work together to make sure we are investing in the needs of our collective future."

To stay up to date on IBHE's strategic planning process, visit the webpage.

The committee members are:
Darryl Arrington, DePaul University
Mara Botman, Circle of Service
Martha Burns, Oakton Community College
Tanya Cabera, University of Illinois Chicago
Brent Clark, Illinois Association of School Administrators
Jim Coleman, Accenture
Marlon Cummings, Governors State University, IBHE Faculty Advisory Committee
Mona Davenport, Illinois Committee on Black Concerns in Higher Education
Julia diLliberti, Illinois Community College Faculty Assoc.
Cherita Ellens, Women Employed
Lisa Freeman, Northern Illinois University
Sameer Gadkaree, The Joyce Foundation
Dave Hanson, EOA Consulting LLC
Lauren Harris, ISU, IBHE Student Advisory Committee
Pranav Kothari, IBHE Board
Jack Lavin, Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce
David Lett, Illinois State Board of Education Member
Daniel Lopez, Illinois Latino Council on Higher Education
Nivine Megahed, National Louis University
Paige Ponder, One Million Degrees
Teresa Ramos, Action for Children
Jim Reed, Illinois Community College Trustees Association
Jonah Rice, Southeastern Illinois College
Amanda Smith, Rock Valley Community College
Audrey Soglin, Illinois Education Association
Samiha Syed, College of DuPage, ICCB Student Advisory Committee
Jose Torres, Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy
Charlotte Warren, Lincoln Land Community College
Simón Weffer-Elizondo, Illinois Federation of Teachers
Kyle Westbrook, Partnership for College Completion


This report was also featured on River Bend.

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The Illinois Black Caucus’ education bill, HB 2170, is headed to the Governor’s desk. Here’s how one piece of the legislation will help Black students on their path toward a college degree.


Partnership for College Completion  |  January 12, 2021

[UPDATE: Governor JB Pritzker signed HB 2170 into law on March 8, 2021.]

Systemic racism underlies both the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color and our history of police violence against Black people in the United States. These dual crises collided last year, creating a wave of civil unrest across the country and spurring the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus (ILBC) to develop a legislative agenda aimed at dismantling the vicious cycle of racism in Illinois. Over the course of several months, the ILBC heard from advocates and stakeholders from across the state on policies and practices hindering racial equity. They categorized these priorities into four pillars:

  1. Criminal justice, violence reduction, and police accountability
  2. Economic access, equity and opportunity
  3. Health care and human services
  4. Education and workforce development.
The Partnership for College Completion and Women Employed had the privilege of working with Leader Kimberly Lightford and Representative Carol Ammons on the education pillar of the ILBC agenda, culminating in HB 2170. The comprehensive bill aimed at reversing centuries of systemic racism in education, birth to career, passed both chambers on Monday, and now heads to the Governor's desk for signature. HB 2170 includes several policies that dismantle barriers to Black student success and advance equity across the P-20 spectrum. One such policy is Article 100, which creates the Developmental Education Reform Act.
Racial disparities in access to higher education and college completion, particularly those between Black and white students, remain stagnant and in some cases are widening. Though there are many factors that contribute to this, there is perhaps no barrier to equitable higher education outcomes as significant and well-researched as developmental education course placement and delivery. Developmental education (or remedial) coursework are classes that don't offer credit or progress toward a degree, but which colleges require many students to take before they can enroll in college-level coursework.

Colleges are twice as likely to place Black students in developmental education courses as they are to place White students. Once placed in a developmental course, Black students are less likely to enroll in and complete a gateway course in mathematics and English and are less likely to complete a degree than their White peers. As it stands, nearly 71 out of every 100 Black students in an Illinois community college are placed into a developmental education course and, most appallingly, only 6 of those students will go on to graduate.

The problem is twofold: (1) inaccurate placement measures, like high stakes placement exams and standardized tests, over-place students into developmental education; and (2) the traditional (and most common) model of developmental education includes long course sequences, which cost students time and money, rarely count as college credit, and seldom lead to a degree.

The Developmental Education Reform Act addresses both of these issues. First, it requires community colleges to look beyond standardized test scores, which, compared with other measures like high school GPA, track more closely with a student's income than their course preparedness. The legislation requires a multiple measures framework for placement into college-level coursework, including GPA. Evidence shows that using high school GPA results in fewer students misplaced into developmental coursework, and can help make placement more equitable. The key to this approach is allowing students to demonstrate proficiency with any one measure in order to become eligible for college-level coursework—eliminating the risk of double jeopardy and giving students multiple paths to demonstrate readiness for college-level coursework.

The second part of the Act addresses how students are served once they are placed into a developmental course. Currently, at least 45 community colleges still implement the traditional model of developmental education at some level, despite evidence of its ineffectiveness. In the latest community college cohort, just 18% of Black students in the traditional math model completed their gateway course with a "C" or better in 3 years, and just 29% completed their English gateway course. Alternately, co-requisite remediation, an evidence-based model that places students directly into college-level coursework with concurrent supports, reported 69% of Black students completing their math gateway course and 64% completing their English gateway course with a "C" or better in 3 years.

While institutions are implementing other approaches to developmental education like co-requisite remediation, 77% of math students and 67% of English students who are placed in developmental education are still placed in a traditional model. The Developmental Education Reform Act requires institutions to develop plans for implementing and scaling evidence-based developmental education models that maximize students' likelihood of completing gateway courses in mathematics and English within two academic semesters. There is no question that more effective approaches to developmental education exist, and this bill will help spur institutional action to implement and scale evidence-based approaches that improve equity in college-level course access and completion. 

In concert with ongoing agency and institutional efforts to improve developmental education outcomes[1], HB2170 will help scale down the disproportionate enrollment of Black students in traditional developmental education, ensuring that more students who can immediately succeed in college-level coursework are placed in credit-bearing courses and that students who need additional support are served by evidence-based models of developmental education.

Successful implementation and sustainability will require institution-wide stakeholder engagement, dedicated state and institutional resources, and a comprehensive review of current developmental education practices and policies and related student supports. We applaud the ILBC for championing HB2170, a crucial step to more equitable course placement and gateway course completion, which will support more Black students on their path toward college degrees. 

[1] See: SJR 41 report, ICCCP course placement recommendations, ICCB developmental education grant, ILEA institutional Equity Plans, PWR Act's transitional math implementation

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Higher education reform bill unveiled, aims for racial equity through scholarships, program reforms


January 11, 2021

by By Peter Hancock - Capitol News Illinois


This report was also featured on WGLT News.

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The Second Stimulus Package Lays the Groundwork for a Higher Ed Recovery That Illinois Can Build On


While the $23 billion will provide some relief, the state must still adequately and equitably fund colleges, particularly more financially vulnerable institutions.

Mike Abrahamson, Policy Manager | January 6, 2021

There are many positive aspects of the federal stimulus package and budget, passed and signed over the holidays. The coupled bills offer helpful funding to public colleges and universities, but it's incomplete; and with no state and local funding included in the bill, Illinois must make equitable funding decisions as it remains in a budget crisis.

This legislation also includes long-sought changes to the Pell grant, among other higher education-related provisions. Overall, Illinois can build on this response to support college students and institutions through the COVID-19 crisis.

$23 billion in aid to colleges and students

The headline of the bill is the $23 billion to be distributed among colleges and universities, a boost from the $14 billion provided in the March CARES Act. However, this is still just a fraction of the $120 billion requested by many leading higher education advocacy organizations, who estimate that $73.8 billion alone is needed to address COVID-19 on campuses. Far more is needed to cover the increase in students' financial need this year, lost revenues from in-person events, and crucially, potential shortfalls in state appropriations.

The stimulus package not only provides aid to colleges and universities, it prioritizes equity in how it doles out these funds. The CARES Act had some equitable elements in its distribution, but Congress made further steps toward equity by more heavily weighting part-time students (who are more likely to be parents, essential workers, and students of color) in this stimulus package's formula.[1] It also concentrated more funding on public colleges and universities by discounting the private colleges wealthy enough to pay the endowment tax in its formula, and limits their usage of funds to expenses directly related to the pandemic.

Pell grant improvements

The budget bill included some much-needed improvements to the federal Pell grant program. It simplified the Federal Application for Financial Student Aid (FAFSA) form from 108 questions down to 36.[2] Technical changes to the "Student Aid Index," a renaming of the much-maligned term "Expected Family Contribution," will also qualify 550,000 additional students for aid, and 1.7 million more students will be eligible for the full award.[3] The award itself had a modest increase of $150, bringing the maximum grant up to about $6,500. This is still only about half of what Illinois university students end up paying for college, making the incoming Biden administration's promise to double Pell that much more important.

The bill includes incarcerated students and students convicted of a drug-related offense in Pell eligibility, reversing a provision of the 1994 crime bill. It also restores Pell eligibility for students who have been defrauded by their college. This is an important step toward aiding students who have been victimized by for-profit colleges, but Illinois can do more to hold these colleges accountable, and stop giving taxpayer money to these institutions by phasing out MAP grants at for-profit colleges.

Other elements included

The stimulus package also includes $1.3 billion in flexible Governors Emergency Education Relief (GEER) funds, about half of the $2.75 billion provided in the CARES Act. If the distribution method to states is the same, Governor Pritzker will be able to allocate about $50 million toward education as he sees fit. PCC advises the Governor's Office to similarly distribute about half toward higher education, and build on the equitable distribution of previous funding to not only include proportion and number of low-income students, but also consider the populations of Black and Latinx students that colleges enroll.

Finally, the bill gives a five-year extension for employers to be able to offer up to $5,250 in student loan relief tax-free to their employees. While this can help employers and some graduates, its benefits are limited and not likely to be very equitable. For this reason, PCC supports student loan forgiveness at the state and federal level that is more equitably targeted.

Concerning and disappointing elements

There are elements of this legislation that are concerning, however. More than $900 million is earmarked for for-profit colleges, which can be predatory, especially during economic crises (though they do receive less in this bill than in the CARES Act). It also does not explicitly state that undocumented students are eligible for funds, which was an omission from the CARES Act that allowed the Department of Education to inequitably exclude undocumented students from receiving emergency grants.

Further, this latest bill also does not offer loan forgiveness or continue the moratorium on federal loan payments, meaning that borrowers will have to continue making loan payments starting February 1. It also includes no aid for state or local governments, so appropriations to public colleges and universities will remain in jeopardy as the state suffers a $3.9 billion budget shortfall. Thus, while the $23 billion will provide some relief, the state must still adequately and equitably fund colleges, particularly more financially vulnerable institutions. This means instilling equity in distributing the GEER funding, as well as in any unavoidable budget cuts. For the Partnership's full playbook on instilling equity in this crisis, see PCC's recent blog post, as well as its Higher Education Appropriations: A Framework for Equity in Illinois report.

Update (1/19/2021): An earlier version of this blog post mentioned changes to the way that developmental education courses would count toward a student's financial aid clock. The American Association of Community Colleges, in talking with congressional staff, has corrected this finding and confirmed that there will be no changes to the Pell grant as it relates to developmental education.

[1] 37.5% is distributed based on the Full-Time Equivalent (FTE) of Pell-eligible students enrolled, 37.5% based on headcount of Pell students, 11.5% based on FTE of non-Pell-eligible students, and 11.5% based on the headcount of non-Pell-eligible students (source: page 1881 of the full-text bill)

[2] It also added a question that will allow the government to trace loan outcomes by race

[3] Students who make 275% of the federal poverty line are eligible for grants, and students closer to 200% of the federal poverty line (depending on family size) are eligible for the maximum award (Source: Center for American Progress)

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


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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Are you effectively serving as a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI)?

Joe Saucedo, PCC Equity Program Manager  and Jonathan Lopez, PCC Communications and Operations Manager | December 9, 2020

The term Hispanic has a complicated history. In fact, there is quite a lot of variance in terms of who identifies with the term depending on your geographic location in the country. In 1973, the federal government created the ethnic category "Hispanic" to refer to individuals with heritage and ancestors originating in Spain or Latin American countries. After years of legislative advocacy in support of increasing college access for underserved students, the Hispanic-serving institution designation was introduced in 1992. Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs) are nonprofit, degree-granting postsecondary institutions in the United States that are federally designated as such by enrolling at least 25% Latinx undergraduate students (Garcia et al., 2019). Emerging HSIs, according to Excelencia in Education, are those colleges and universities that have a full-time equivalent Hispanic enrollment between 15-24%. Dr. Gina Ann Garcia from the University of Pittsburgh has dedicated much of her research on HSIs to assessing whether these institutions deliver on the promise to serve Hispanic and Latinx students in ways that their white dominant counterparts do not. Specifically, Dr. Garcia interrogates whether HSIs go beyond just enrolling more Latinx students and also focus on taking action that yields better persistence and graduation rates.

As Illinois' Latinx community continues to grow, more colleges and universities should be prepared to be Hispanic serving and in more than designation - effectively serving and supporting Latinx student persistence and degree completion.

In Dr. Garcia's groundbreaking book, Becoming Hispanic-Serving Institutions: Opportunities for Colleges & Universities, it becomes clear that despite the HSI designation, many well-intentioned institutions of higher education promote invisibility for Latinx students when course offerings prioritize a Eurocentric perspective, administrative leaders and faculty are mostly white, or student programming does not account for the rich diversity of Latinx students. Dr. Garcia further argues that colleges and universities with the HSI classification must commit to providing their students with equitable experiences and outcomes.

In regions across the United States, including the Midwest, the Hispanic/Latinx population has seen double-digit growth since 2010, and there is a correlation between that population growth and the emergence of Hispanic-serving institutions. In our state, out of the 28 partner colleges and universities that comprise the Illinois Equity in Attainment Initiative, 15 are designated as HSIs or emerging HSIs. For some of these partners, their enrollment figures tell one story while retention and persistence rates among Hispanic/Latinx students lag behind non-Hispanic students. Fortunately, ILEA partners are confronting these and other disparities through a number of equity reforms, including the implementation of proven institutional strategies to address specific inequities. But as Dr. Garcia's research points out, more work is needed by HSIs and emerging HSIs in general to effectively serve Latinx students and support their success.

PCC's Communications and Operations Manager Jonathan Lopez graduated from two Chicago-based HSIs, read more about his experience here.

By participating in the ILEA initiative, PCC's partner institutions including those with an established or emerging HSI status, have access to practitioners and scholar researchers such as Dr. Garcia and December webinar presenter, Dr. Marcela Cuellar, of the UC Davis School of Education, who problematize the concept of servingness and offer evidence-based considerations for examining campus racial climate and nonacademic student outcomes. In her essay for the American Council on Education, Dr. Garcia credits HSIs for doing their part to pursue federal grants that would enhance their ability to serve racially diverse students in meaningful ways. However, she acknowledges that there is much more that must be done in order for students enrolled at HSIs to navigate higher education successfully.

Dr. Garcia explicitly lays out several recommendations that are relevant for HSI leaders:

  • Articulate and embrace the HSI identity as an organization
  • Develop and nurture a campus environment that affirms and celebrates Latinx culture and the racial/ethnic background of minoritized students
  • Identify, recognize, and enhance the cultural wealth and vast knowledge that students bring to your institution
  • Provide ongoing anti-racist training and development opportunities for faculty and staff
  • Inventory and transform the structures that affect how Latinx students experience the institution including but not limited to governance, leadership, curricular and co-curricular offerings, decision-making processes, and assessment 

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An HSI Graduate’s Story: All Perseverance Amid Inadequate Support


Jonathan Lopez, Communications and Operations Manager | December 9, 2020
Jonathan is an alum of two Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs). 

Achieving my dream of a college degree took a lot of work and perseverance. As a young undocumented immigrant in 2006, I graduated high school with the expectation that I would not be able to attend college. I was told for two years by my high school counselor that "people like me did not go to college," that it "was too hard or nearly impossible," for an undocumented student. The counselor repeated that message to me so much that by graduation time, I believed it. I spent almost two years not going to college while trying to encourage myself to figure out a way.

After reaching out to many community colleges and universities, some of which actually denied me an admission application, I arrived at a 2-year institution I would ultimately attend. There, a counselor talked to me about Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs) being friendlier to undocumented students. I will never forget this counselor because he was welcoming and gave me hope for the first time. Although this college had not been designated an HSI at that point, the counselor painted a picture that emerging HSIs can sometimes be more prepared to enroll Latinx students regardless of their status. At that, I enrolled at the institution and embarked on my college career.

Nothing would prepare me for the nearly 10-year struggle to graduate college. As a freshman, I thought that an institution with so many Latinx students would be better prepared to serve students like me. In theory, they are supposed to be. But this is not the reality that many students experience. I did not experience it. Instead, I attended college with no resources or clear support. After almost 4 years, I'd earned an Associate Degree with honors and began the transfer process to a 4-year institution. My transfer experience was marked by the very apparent inattention that many institutions of higher ed have long been reporting as having toward transfer students. But I was hopeful - the university I transferred to was among the first in Illinois to be given the official designation of HSI. This institution was wonderfully welcoming and accepting of my undocumented status, but even with an HSI designation, there were no targeted resources or supports for me to persist and eventually graduate.

My struggles were mainly financing college at this point. Working three part-time jobs was not enough because paying for the higher tuition costs of a 4-year university out of pocket, with no family or institutional support, was incredibly difficult. My lack of financial resources and the constant "holds" on my student account forced me to stop out of the university twice - having to choose between eating or paying tuition. It took me almost six years to complete the rest of my undergraduate program. During these six years, other colleges and universities received their designation of HSI or emerging HSI, but circumstances did not change for me or for many of my peers. I eventually achieved a Bachelor's degree in 2019 by my own perseverance, two small community scholarships, and with PCC's support. But I graduated never experiencing the support of a policy, a program, or student service aimed at helping me persist and graduate.

Looking back, it would have helped if there had been targeted financial aid for students like me, informed college advising to help maneuver obstacles and support transfer students, and policies and programming aimed at preventing me from stopping out of college. More significantly, it would have helped having more diverse curricula and academic programs.

Today, as a college degree holder and while working at a mission-driven organization involved in higher education reform, I continue to learn of new HSI designations in Illinois. I have also learned of publicly-funded grants that are made available to some institutions that reach the HSI designations. These grants and the continued growth of Latinx student enrollment represent an opportunity for Illinois colleges and universities to implement effective programming and system-wide student support for Latinx students to persist and graduate.

As the Latinx population in the United States continues to grow, more colleges and universities will inevitably be designated HSIs. Will the institutions aim to do more than reach HSI status? Will they welcome the opportunity to better serve their Latinx students?

For students like me, those who are currently enrolled at or on their way to attending an HSI, my hope is that HSIs and emerging HSIs are prepared to serve them in more than name only.

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Data for Equity Action

Dear ILEA Partners,

It has been wonderful to see your faces onscreen at our virtual events this fall. Thank you for continuing to prioritize the equity work on your campuses in ways that will strengthen your institutions economically and academically, as places of excellence in which to study, work, and grow.

The year 2020 has been a year of considerable challenge, but we have also discovered many pleasant surprises in our work together. As you have demonstrated, we found that it is possible to continue to build community with all of you, engage in important dialogues, and deliver effective online programming on various equity topics that can increase capacity for this work on your teams. As always, the resources produced by our team have been created in direct response to feedback and requests we receive from you. We thank you for taking the time to share your feedback and reach out to us with individual requests. We continue to value this engagement with you to better target our programming and to ensure its ongoing relevance to your most pressing needs.

As our ILEA institutional research colleagues finalize the submission of baseline data to the NSC PDP and your teams gain access to your dashboards, the PCC team is busy creating opportunities to support you in building data capacity in the coming year. We recognize that on this measure, as with many others, ILEA teams are in different places on the journey to democratizing disaggregated data throughout the institutional decision-making process.

As you consider institutional data, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do you regularly share disaggregated data across your institution with various stakeholders (faculty, staff, students)?

  • Does your leadership team or department regularly use disaggregated data to make decisions?

  • Does your team or department regularly use disaggregated data to evaluate the impact of decisions/equity strategies?

  • Do you closely examine  data for ILEA equity populations (Black students, Latinx students, and students who are Pell recipients)?

If the answer is 'no' to any of these questions – what is your plan to get to that point? Additionally, do you regularly collect qualitative data to supplement and provide context to quantitative data?Finally, do you provide opportunities for your team to consider this data and make sense of it? All of these are critical components to building a strong data culture within your institutions.

Though we are all working to impact graduation rates, these measures are lagging indicators. Lagging indicators provide us with a look back at the cumulative experience of students within our institutions. As we collectively implement strategies to eliminate inequities in degree completion by race, ethnicity, and Pell status, the regular use of leading indicators will be a critical tool to get us there.

Leading indicators or early momentum metrics:

  • provide timely, just-in-time data
  • are shorter term measures
  • are actionable metrics that are close to practice
  • are a form of early alert
  • have predictive power, research has shown
  • allow us to test hypotheses and move the equity needle
  • are formative
  • are easier to control

As your teams become familiar with the NSC PDP dashboards – which may look different from some of the institutional data you are used to reviewing because it includes all full-time, part-time, first-time, not first-time student – regardless of when they entered your institution – you can identify the leading indicators that are available to you. These include: first year enrollment, credit accumulation rate, credit completion ratio, gateway course completion, persistence and retention, degree completion, and time to degree as well as the ability to disaggregate by race and first-generation. There is also the ability to benchmark these measures against peer institutions.

We look forward to continuing the data conversation with you through our upcoming data capacity-building opportunities that will be announced next month. These workshops, presentations, and courses will be designed for teams at different points in their development and your participation will be optional.

The New Year will also bring new programming in other areas, tools and resources for use on your campuses, opportunities for collaboration across ILEA colleges and universities, and targeted individual supports. We look forward to sharing more with you.

As we reflect on this year, we feel so inspired by the evidence we have seen in the past couple months alone, of increasing equity organization and momentum on your teams and within your colleges and universities. We hope all of you can take a moment this season to appreciate that progress, too.

We wish you a safe, restful, and rejuvenating holiday season. 2021 awaits!

In partnership for equity,


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