The increasing prospects of high college costs and a demand for more trade-based jobs are pushing more students to enroll in community college. But how do the institutions in northern Illinois stack up?
Community colleges in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin didn’t fare exceptionally well in a ranking of 728 institutions in a recent study by WalletHub – although Southwest Wisconsin Technical College took the number-three spot, and Illinois’s Rend Lake College ranked eleventh.
A much higher percentage of Wisconsin community colleges were in the top third – 13 of 15 schools that made the list -- than Illinois, with only 8 of 40 listed schools in that category. Highland Community College in Freeport did take the 104 spot, however.
In a separate study of state community college systems, Wisconsin ranked fifth best in the nation, while Illinois was rated 29th.
The study evaluated member schools from the American Association of Community Colleges according to three broad sets of statistics:
- Costs and financing considered tuition, per-pupil spending, faculty salaries, and whether laws existed to provide tuition-free community college.
- Educational and Career outcomes examined graduation rates and compared students’ starting salaries with the cost of their education. Career also examined the average student-loan default rate.
Highland ranked the highest among community colleges in the WNIJ listening area. Its strongest category was educational outcomes, rated at 122, but cost and finances were also ranked relatively high, at 177.
HCC President Tim Hood said more than 60 percent of students receive some kind of grant or scholarship, due in great part to the Highland Community College foundation.
“This was the first foundation of its kind for a community college in the State of Illinois," he said. "It’s one of the longest-existing and serving community colleges in the country, and we have a very rich history of philanthropy in this area.”
Hood also was impressed by the metrics used for the rankings, saying they "touch on" what he considers "to be the most important elements of what we need to be mindful of as educators.”
Like all of the state’s educational institutions, Highland lost significant funding during the budget impasse. Hood said they had to make some hard choices but otherwise weathered the storm well. He notes comments from a recent accreditation summed it up best.
"We’re not only positioned to survive, we’re positioned to thrive.”
Other northern Illinois community colleges fell near the middle of the survey’s ranks. Sauk Valley Community College, for example, took the 302 spot overall, but ranked at 53 in educational outcomes. SVCC President David Hellmich said this is because of a particularly strong focus on careers.
“Employers know us," he said. "They’re quick to send their current employees to us for retraining, and they’re quick to look for our graduates.”
Hellmich says that ranking SVCC at 686 for cost and financing contradicts their overall costs.
“Our tuition and fees is the ninth-lowest in the state," he said. "We’ve done everything we can to keep it low, even during the dysfunctionality going on in Springfield.”
Hellmich says the disparity may be explained by a greater weight placed on whether a state offers free community college education. In his opinion, the study gives that factor too much influence in calculations.
Sauk Valley had a wide variation in rankings in each individual category. Two other area institutions -- Kishwaukee College at 307 and Rock Valley College at 341 -- scored much closer to each other in the various categories, with cost and financing both in the 400 range and education and career outcomes both in the 200 range.
Kishwaukee College President Laurie Borowicz said that, as with many community colleges, enrollment has dropped somewhat due to the economy. However, she noted a regular student survey found that attendees gave high marks to campus lab facilities and feedback on coursework.
Since a large portion of their students end up transferring to other institutions, such as Northern Illinois University, Borowicz says there’s a strong guidance system in place to ensure students have the credits they need to get into the right program.
“They think they’re going in one direction or they’re not sure, so they just take classes; and, when they pick their major, they’ve taken classes they don’t really need for that major," she explained. "So we’ve really put a push on helping undecideds.”
Borowicz believes the WalletHub study shouldn’t be used in isolation.
“I think it’s just another resource, another tool out there that people are able to use. I think it’s a newer one out there," she said." But, again, I think people should study a lot of resources when looking at which college they intend to attend.”
And then there’s Rock Valley College, where programs range from technical education and nursing to general academics. Lisa Mehlig, RVC Vice President for Institutional Research, said many of their students are nontraditional.
“On average, most of our students are taking three to four years to complete -- some even longer due to their life circumstances -- because many of our students, being nontraditional students, have life responsibilities outside of school that they’re trying to balance,” she said.
While graduation rates are solid, Mehlig said a current college focus is trying to reduce the amount of time it takes those students to graduate.
“The longer it takes you to complete any degree, whether it’s community college or a four-year college, the less likely you are to complete it," Mehlig said. "We certainly want our students not only to have good access to education but then to complete that education.”
As for the rankings, Mehlig has mixed opinions. She says the WalletHub study’s goal of showing potential students which colleges offer the best bang for the buck is admirable, but such a list wouldn’t necessarily get the same use as one comparing four-year colleges. She noted that most students are likely to attend the colleges in their community rather than hunt down the perfect school. At the same time, she said, comparing other in-state schools can be useful.
“I’d like to be able to drill into our data as well as the data of other institutions in Illinois to get a better understanding of what we could learn from other institutions, what we could replicate in terms of successes,” she said.
The college officials aren’t unanimous in their views of the study, but there is some consensus. Namely, the WalletHub study may be useful at a glance, but it’s just one of many resources that prospective community colleges students should consult.
And that will become even more important as the economy encourages more trade-focused jobs and non-traditional education.