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Article updated: 8/26/2013 11:52 AM

ECC students can get 4-year degrees without a move

By Tara García Mathewson

Editors note: This article was changed to reflect the correct spelling of John Coffin's last name.

Kerry McCullor is just one class away from meeting the graduation requirements for an associate degree from Elgin Community College. She'll get her diploma in December, but she won't say goodbye to the Elgin campus. Not yet, anyway.

McCullor, 38, wants a bachelor's degree, too. And thanks to a partnership with Columbia College of Missouri, she can stay right where she is to get it.

Columbia College of Missouri offers Elgin students degrees in business administration, criminal justice administration, human services and general studies. The classes are taught by Columbia professors in ECC classrooms.

For McCullor, a wife and a mother, staying close to home for her continuing education was key.

"Convenience -- that's what I'm looking at," said McCullor, of Elgin. "I don't want to miss out on things with my family."

ECC has similar partnerships with Northern Illinois University and Judson University, though Columbia's is the longest-running and offers the most degree options. ECC also has hundreds of agreements with schools across the state ensuring its students can transfer seamlessly after starting at the community college.

John Coffin, associate dean for student success, said community colleges increasingly are offering four-year degree options through partnerships like these. They work especially well for people who can't relocate for school.

"We do have a number of four-year universities … in the general area, but students feel comfortable just being on our campus," Coffin said. "This is a way to start here, finish here and stay here."

College of DuPage hosted its first graduation ceremony last spring for students who started in its programs but finished their four-year degrees through Lewis University in Romeoville.

The trend is about more than convenience. Cost is another oft-cited benefit of such partnerships.

Judy Thomas, 50, started taking classes at ECC in 2007. She was looking for a second career in early childhood education and turned to her local community college. Once she finished her associate degree, she decided she wanted to continue studying in the field of human services to be able to help at-risk young people.

Thomas plans to take as many classes at ECC as possible before graduating with a degree from Columbia College -- that means 81 credit hours, according to the Karen Beckstrom, director of Columbia College-Elgin. The ECC courses are cheaper and carry equal weight toward Thomas' graduation requirements.

Thomas said starting at ECC has amounted to huge savings.

"Cost was a big factor for me because I'm a returning student," Thomas said.

Many of Thomas' peers in the Columbia program at Elgin are near her age. There are plenty of evening classes offered to accommodate adult students scheduling classes around work.

The Columbia program started 15 years ago at ECC, and it was just renewed for another three years. The number of students enrolled has slowly and steadily grown from about 30 students per period to more than 200.

Each session lasts eight weeks and gives students a rigorous, fast-paced curriculum to get them to their goal faster.

The sessions Judson University offers at ECC are six weeks long. David Cook, director of graduate business, said students often take just one class at a time. The six-week sessions give them a chance to dive deep into a single topic before moving on.

Judson offers degrees in management of technology systems and communications management. Coffin said ECC has been careful not to make partnerships with universities looking to offer competing programs. That limits the number of partnerships they can enter into, and Coffin said the college is basically at a point of maintaining its current offerings.

Northern Illinois University is open for ECC students to complete degrees in health and human sciences for practicing professionals, liberal arts and sciences, and nursing.

For returning adults looking for nontraditional programs, Judson's Cook said this alternative model is a great addition to college campuses.

"These programs offer them the opportunity to change their lives and the trajectory of their lives," Cook said. "It's about hope and a better future."

Stay: ECC also partners with Judson, NIU

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