Nine students will walk across the stage today at Lewis University's commencement ceremony to receive bachelor's degrees in criminal justice.
Yet, the students never took any classes at the school's campus in Romeoville.
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Through the so-called 3+1 program partnership between Lewis and College of DuPage, the students earned their four-year degrees from Lewis by taking all their classes at COD's campus in Glen Ellyn.
They are the first to receive bachelor's degrees through the program since the state's largest community college started negotiating agreements with area universities in 2011 that allow students to take three years of classes at COD, then a fourth year taught by instructors from partner universities at COD's campus.
It's the only community college in the state to offer such a program. And the initiative is the latest effort by COD President Robert Breuder to encourage what he believes is the inevitable: Community colleges in Illinois offering four-year baccalaureate degrees, just like universities.
"Whenever I talk to students and they say what it is they'd like to see, more (often) than not they say, 'We'd like to not transfer out and earn a bachelor's degree here if we could,'" Breuder said. "You want to keep them in the community because once they leave, there's always the prospect they might not come back. Every community wants to keep its educated citizenry."
During his time at COD and before as president of Harper College in Palatine, Breuder has lobbied legislators for a change in state law that would permit community colleges to award four-year degrees. Legislation has never made it beyond the state House, with opponents labeling the measure as unnecessary competition and duplication. There are now 21 states that allow community colleges to award bachelor's degrees, and Breuder said he believes there could be movement again to try to change Illinois law within the next two to five years.
But for now, Breuder says COD is continuing to pursue additional 3+1 agreements with local four-year universities as a way for students to get a bachelor's degree at an affordable cost, and not have to go far from home.
Students who are graduating on Sunday said taking classes at COD through the 3+1 program cost them as much as $34,000, compared to the estimated $90,000 cost to take four years of classes at Lewis.
While other schools across the country have programs like COD's, they're not of the same model, said Glenda Gallisath, who drafted the 3+1 agreements for COD.
Many schools have 2+2 arrangements in which students take two years of classes at a community college, then transfer to a four-year university to get a bachelor's degree. But the final two years of study take place at the university -- not the community college -- and there's no tuition discount for the last two years, like universities provide in the COD 3+1 partnerships, said Gallisath, who is the school's associate vice president for academic affairs.
The 3+1 program also differs from arrangements where universities partner to offer classes at a community college, such as the University Center of Lake County located on the Grayslake campus of the College of Lake County. Students can earn four-year degrees from any of 20 universities or colleges, but academically, those institutions maintain separate operations from CLC, a community college that donated the land for the center.
COD's agreement with Lewis was signed by officials from both schools in February 2011. Since then, COD has drawn up agreements with Benedictine University, Concordia University Chicago, Governors State University and Roosevelt University. A total of 20 COD programs of study feed into 12 different bachelor's degrees at the five partner universities.
Students pay COD tuition -- $140 per credit hour as of next fall -- for the first three years, and a discounted tuition rate in the final year to a partner university.
One of the benefits of the partnerships, says Lewis University Provost Stephany Schlachter, is that the universities allow the COD credits to transfer. That may not always be the case for a student who transfers. "It might take you 4½ to 5 years to get your degree," Schlachter said.
The program, Gallisath said, "has been laid out step-by-step, course-by-course, and nothing falls through the cracks."
Students who will be graduating Sunday said they want to pursue careers in law enforcement, whether for local or federal agencies.
One of those students is Milos Radenkovic, 23, a Marine reservist from Willowbrook who decided to switch concentrations from engineering to criminal justice after returning from basic training in 2011.
"My goals became more clear after joining the military," said Radenkovic, who has applied at 14 police departments and has made it onto the eligibility list in Schiller Park.
One of the instructors at COD, Villa Park Police Chief Robert Pavelchik, has a connection to both schools. Before being hired as a patrol officer in Darien in 1978, Pavelchik took two years of classes at COD. Later he went back to Lewis to take additional classes.
Pavelchik, who teaches at least one criminal justice class per semester at COD, said the graduating students were right to complete their four-year degree now, rather than in stages as he did. And he underscored the importance of a college education for those pursuing careers in law enforcement, as more and more local police departments require new officers to have taken at least some college courses, where once a high school diploma would have been acceptable.
"This 3+1 is the way to get it done," he said.