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updated: 5/1/2014 10:45 AM

Editorial: Public need meets private good in Harper program

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On Tuesday, we read about Denise Owens, a single mom who has survived a bad marriage and bad kidneys, and who turned her life around with a determined spirit and help from a suburban women's shelter and from the Women's Program at Harper College. At the Women's Program, Owens got grants that bought her books and paid her tuition. She got counseling to help with personal issues, and she developed a camaraderie among other women that helped her stay the course. Today, she is four classes shy of a bachelor's degree at Roosevelt University and fulfilling her desire for a career as a probation officer.

The Women's Program at Harper is unique even among community colleges, which have special bonds with nontraditional students. It takes a holistic approach to helping people change their lives -- with a $350,000 annual budget, it gives grants for books and classes, supports those who have experienced domestic violence (as at least half of the 446 participants in 2013 did), and provides support for people who need guidance in education, career choices, nutrition, child care, job readiness and more.

The Women's Program offers what Harper President Ken Ender calls "customized" attention. In return for the individualized support, clients have to make good -- finish the semester, pass the course, get healthy. Of the 318 participants enrolled at Harper in fall 2012, 94 percent completed the semester, and 86 percent did it with a GPA of at least 2.0.

Now, the program has gotten a big boost.

John and Rita Canning, philanthropists from Inverness, have donated $1 million -- $100,000 a year for 10 years, specifically to the Women's Program. To Ender, who sees government money for colleges dwindling, this kind of public/private partnership represents the future of community colleges. "We're building a legacy of what can be done when we bring together public and private interests." he says.

It isn't just the money. Contrary to popular and usually incorrect stereotypes about wealth, John and Rita Canning are community "investors." They choose their philanthropy carefully and get personally -- often very personally -- involved. They aren't telling the Women's Program how to spend the $100,000 -- but they are telling them in no uncertain terms to spend it, so that it accomplishes the benefit they and Harper intend.

"We need another 40 to 60 John and Rita Cannings," each of them taking a specialized interest in one part of the student body, Ender says. Not likely. But the Women's Program is showing what can be done with investors who are genuinely interested and a college that sees the big picture, one student at a time.

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