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posted: 11/21/2013 5:00 AM

Steps toward a more educated Illinois workforce

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  • Harry Berman is executive director of the Illinois Board of Higher Education.

      Harry Berman is executive director of the Illinois Board of Higher Education.

 
By Harry Berman

More than 140,000 high-skilled jobs are unfilled within the state of Illinois because workers lack the necessary skills. With declining numbers of high school students and increasing numbers of low-income young people who are the first in their family to pursue a college education, our colleges and universities have great challenges to make sure their students succeed.

The need is clear. We must create a pipeline of educated and skilled Illinois citizens to fill these jobs, and Illinois colleges should be ready to provide it.

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We may not have to turn far for the answer to our challenges. Here in Illinois, individual college campuses have continued to innovate and implement new approaches to solving cost and completion problems in higher education.

Recognizing the success of such individual initiatives, Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon visited all 48 community colleges and 12 public university campuses in Illinois to examine best practices in college completion efforts with a focus on affordability.

She summarized her observations in a College Completion Playbook and recently hosted a two-day conference, "Scaling Up: Effective Practices in Higher Education," in Bloomington. The conference and playbook exposed Illinois' community colleges and universities to promising practices that can be implemented to increase student success at their own institutions.

Collaboration is critical to our success. Removing barriers and providing support systems for students requires an advanced level of cooperation and communication by all educators. For example, a partnership between Northern Illinois University and Waubonsee Community College has resulted in a piloted reverse transfer credit program that promotes associate degree completion for Waubonsee students and provides a seamless transfer credit process for students between the two institutions. All in all, the program is a win-win, with no cost to the students and minimal costs to the institutions to increase degree completions.

Illinois needs more student-focused and responsive programs like the City Colleges of Chicago's tutoring and mentorship summer program. The Level Up program is designed to prepare first-year students for college level work in math and English and reduce the need for remedial courses for CCC students. We need more innovations like the measures taken by Southern Illinois University to reduce "credit creep," the unnecessary credits students take on their road to attaining a degree.

Jamie Merisotis, president of the Lumina Foundation, had it right when he said at the conference that "we in education enjoy convenings, but it's in the commitment to innovate and the focus on student-centered implementation -- that's where real change can occur." Now the real work begins.

Each institution was asked to leave the meeting with a plan to "scale up" the initiatives that best address their needs -- taking these good practices to more campuses and more Illinois students. Real success means moving beyond the show and tell, beyond the discussion that the Lt. Governor has inspired, and turning meaningful conversation into meaningful action focused on the success of our college students.

There is no blanket solution to increasing the number of Illinoisans who obtain and benefit from a college degree, but Illinois institutions of higher education are proving that they are ready for the challenge by examining best practices and collaborating with their fellow institutions right in their own backyards. Illinois' future depends upon a well-educated and skilled workforce and Illinois higher education institutions are working together to get us there.

• Harry Berman is executive director of the Illinois Board of Higher Education.

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