It’s been a rough couple of years for Illinois community colleges, from the slashed funds of the budget impasse to concerning enrollment declines. We begin a three-part series on how these very different schools have stayed afloat by embracing change and, more importantly, putting the "community" in community college.
In the student center at the Sugar Grove campus of Waubonsee Community College, students are sitting--earbuds engaged--voraciously looking from books to notes. Ten feet away, a group is talking over breakfast from the cafe. A nearby table is set up to register voters.
It's about what you'd picture a university campus to look like. But the people walking to class don't all look the part of your traditional college student.
This is a community college, one of dozens in Illinois.
The majority of Waubonsee students transfer to a four-year school after community college.
"We also find that a lot of these students, actually, they still commute," said Jamal Scott, Waubonsee's VP of Strategic Development.
"That's part of the reason they stay close to home," Scott said. "They start at Waubonsee and go to Northern. They may live in Aurora but they drive to DeKalb, they go to class and they come back home."
Dave Hellmich is the president of Sauk Valley Community College in Dixon.
"What a community college does when it's doing what it should do, it meets the needs of the local community," he said.
Hellmich adds: "And a major university will do that with a much more broad mission. But if there is a skilled workforce need that we're not meeting in the local community, then we're not doing our jobs."
But aren't college-bound students fleeing the state of Illinois more than nearly any other state? Yes.
However, the story of community colleges is a bit different, according to Laurie Borowicz, president of Kishwaukee College. "Community college graduates tend to stay more local," Borowicz said, "so that's a really good thing for all of us in our local economies."
Rock Valley College President Doug Jensen says it's something important to remember when state funding wavers.
"We have to shift the conversation from a community college being a public expense to a community college is really a regional economic investment," Jensen said. "The impact a community college has on a local community is very powerful."
That's particularly powerful when you consider the number of students, and all adults, who move away. More people moved from Illinois than any other state in 2017.
"We may all have community college in our name, but we're all different," said Jerry Corcoran, the president of Illinois Valley Community College in LaSalle County. About nine percent of residents in his district lack a high school diploma; IVCC's district covers more than 2,000 square miles.
"We're really the only post-secondary institution within a 50-mile radius of Oglesby," Corcoran said. "So we have to be affordable, we have to be high quality, and we have to take into account that a lot of our students have other things going on in their lives."
And like the unique needs of their districts, all northern Illinois community colleges have some variation in terms of specific programs they offer. You can get a truck driving certificate at Illinois Valley, and you can get one for diesel technology at Kishwaukee College.
Healthcare and manufacturing jobs are a driving force in the economy around Rock Valley College in Rockford. President Jensen says around 37 percent of the region's workforce is in those two sectors.
"Those are very high-paying positions," he said. "So not only is it over one-third of the population, but it's a third of the population where there is a career opportunity to grow, as well as a rather substantial, livable wage."
The need for those jobs, especially in healthcare, is felt in rural and urban parts of the state. Waubonsee’s district stretches from the farms of Sandwich and Somonauk to Illinois' second-largest city, Aurora. In fact, Aurora is home to another one of their campuses, Fox Valley, which is located at Rush-Copley Medical Center and trains students in most of their healthcare programs.
The biggest challenge for the future of community colleges in Illinois is how to continue meeting the educational and workforce needs of diverse communities, while state resources dwindle and populations decline. That's the topic of the next report in our three-part series.