The Partnership for College Completion hosted its fourth annual Virtual ILEA Equity Institute on Friday, April 12, welcoming hundreds of like-minded higher education professionals to exchange best practices and learn from leading experts in the field. This year’s event marked the first time the Equity Institute was open to the public and attracted staff, faculty, administrators, students, advocates and community members from around the country.

This year’s theme was “Empowering Students: Fostering Equity Through Basic Needs and Financial Support Structures,” focusing on how we can collectively empower and better serve diverse students from various socioeconomic backgrounds by cultivating a culture of care on college campuses while supporting bachelor’s degree completion.

Dr. Claudia Mercado, PCC Senior Director of College and University Partnerships, welcomed attendees and set the tone for the day by noting a March 2024 study from Jobs for the Future about the connections between financial stress and dropout rates of college students.

“Those of us who have been practitioners, those of us that have worked with college students, have college students in our families, or were once college students, financial stress can really limit students’ ability to have higher academic achievements,” Dr. Mercado said. “It can also negatively impact students’ wellbeing and also impact students’ confidence in being able to complete college.”

The morning continued with three concurrent sessions, with presentations by ILEA partner institutions Elgin Community College, Harper College, Chicago State University and Morton College. Also presenting were representatives from One Million Degrees and Loyola University Chicago.

Attendees then gathered together again for a fireside chat with keynote speaker, renowned scholar and student basic needs expert Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab. She is the author of “Paying the Price, College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream, senior fellow at Education Northwest, adjunct professor at the Community College of Philadelphia, and founder of The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice. In sharing her expertise, she shared what led her into her line of work.

“My lens on financial aid was always a little different. I always read the literature and I felt like you weren’t seeing the humans in it,” Goldrick-Rab said. “We were always talking about numbers and funding and design, but we weren’t talking about the student experience of financial aid. In particular whether or not it was actually achieving its intention, which is to remove the financial constraints from your life while you’re in college.”

Following a powerful and motivating conversation with Dr. Goldrick-Rab, attendees sat in on a session by ECMC Foundation Program Manager Ireri Rivas Mier y Teran on the Foundation’s Basic Needs Initiative.

“ECMC Foundation considers basic needs insecurities to be the lack of resourcesor the fear of the lack of resourcesthat disrupt student learning, persistence and completion in postsecondary education,” Rivas Mier y Teran explained. “We have the initiative already, and 2023 was the year we said, ‘Let’s start thinking about what makes sense next for the Foundation. Where can we try to support efforts that will make longer term, systemic change?'”

The day closed out with one final concurrent session, with presentations by Michigan Community College Association and ILEA partner Olive-Harvey College.

Session recordings from the 2024 Virtual ILEA Equity Institute are available in the PCC Library.

PCC launched the Illinois Equity in Attainment Initiative (ILEA) in October 2018. It is the organization’s signature effort to galvanize direct and urgent action with a group of two-year and four-year, public and private non-profit colleges and universities across the state. Twenty-five institutions publicly committed to the PCC’s goal to eliminate racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps by 2025 and aggressively prioritize increasing completion rates on their campuses. PCC hosts two ILEA tentpole events during the year: the ILEA Summit in the fall and the Virtual ILEA Equity Institute in the spring.