Now in its fifth year, the Partnership for College Completion is fighting for equity in higher education in Illinois

Illinois has some grim statistics when it comes to college completion and affordability: Public universities in Illinois are among most expensive in the nation for families earning less than $30,000. Low-income undergraduates in Illinois are only about half as likely to graduate as their more affluent peers. And in the past decade, African American enrollment in higher education has declined precipitously.

“Illinois has a long distance to travel to become a state in which race or income doesn’t determine your ability to afford, access, or complete college,” said Lisa Castillo, executive director of Partnership for College Completion, an advocacy nonprofit. “But we’re making progress.”

In its first five years, the Partnership’s contribution to that progress included organizing colleges and universities to launch equity plans and winning some significant legislative victories.

The group’s “first big legislative push,” was aimed at ending the practice of assigning college students to ineffective remedial courses, said Castillo Richmond. Nearly half of Illinois students who enroll in community college are assigned to “developmental” courses in math and English, usually because they failed to meet a cutoff score on the ACT, SAT, or a placement test.

“These courses are zero credit, take time and money, and put students in a holding pattern just as they are entering higher education to pursue their goals,” she explained. Few students assigned to developmental courses go on to earn a degree, and this is especially true of Black and Latinx students, who are disproportionately assigned to them even if they did well in high school.

A more effective approach, one with “rigorous research” behind it, she said, is corequisite model where students needing extra support are placed simultaneously in both credit-bearing courses and supplemental math or English classes that reinforce skills.

Facing Down ‘Vociferous Opposition’

The Partnership was deeply involved in 2018 in drafting legislation to reform developmental education. But the idea faced “vociferous opposition,” including from college faculty who wanted to maintain the existing system, Castillo Richmond said. “Just like any system of structural racism, it’s not based on research, it’s based on historic ways of doing things.”

The Developmental Education Reform Act was finally signed into law on March 8, 2021, after the Black Caucus included it in their omnibus Education and Workforce Equity Act, a piece of legislation spearheaded by Rep. Carol Ammons (D) and Sen. Kimberly Lightford (D).

“Partnership for College Completion was instrumental in helping me, and Senator Lightford, understand how to remove barriers to completing college for Black, brown, and low-income students,” said Ammons. “I don’t think our package would have been as extensive and lauded around the country as it was if the Partnership’s involvement wasn’t there. Their recommendations were critical.”

Among other provisions, the law requires community colleges to consider high school GPA in college placement decisions (a much stronger predictor of college success than standardized test scores) and to use a research-based approach to developmental courses, such as the co-requisite model.

Tackling College Costs

In another legislative victory, the Partnership advocated for a legislatively mandated commission to study how other states equitably fund public universities. Illinois not only underfunds its public universities, Castillo Richmond said, it distributes funding without regard to student need. Flagship universities attracting more students from middle-class households are funded at the same level as those that draw more students from low-income backgrounds.

As a result, Illinois has seen the highest college cost increases and greatest enrollment declines in the nation outside of flagship universities for students from low-income backgrounds, the Partnership found. Using public data, they calculated that a family earning under $30,000 would pay on average $9,500 a year at a public university in Wisconsin, $6,000 a year in Indiana, and nearly $14,000 a year in Illinois. “The result is an alarming decline in Black student enrollment and Latinx enrollment that hasn’t kept pace with population growth,” Castillo Richmond noted.

On August 23, 2021, Gov. JB Pritzker signed the Commission on Equitable Public University Funding Act, and Partnership for College Completion became one of the commission’s 33 members. Recommendations for an equitable funding formula will be released in July 2023.

Yet legislation alone won’t achieve equity in higher education, Castillo Richmond noted. “If it was easy to achieve racial equity in our colleges and universities, it would already be done,” she said. “If we could just pass legislation to do that we would.”

Shifting Entrenched Practice

The real work is in shifting entrenched policies and practices inside institutions, she said. Towards that end, the Partnership reached out to public and private colleges and universities in Illinois enrolling the largest number of students of color to join the Illinois Equity in Attainment Initiative. Launched in fall 2018, it organizes conferences and training for 25 college and university leadership teams to figure out how to improve graduation rates for Black and Latinx students, including with a year-long “Equity Academy.” As a condition of membership, institutions agree to share data on student outcomes and to submit a comprehensive equity plan aimed at raising graduation rates for students from all backgrounds.

“We were very surprised by the overwhelmingly positive response,” Castillo Richmond said. “This was institutional leaders saying, ‘Yes, we want to invest time and resources in making this happen.’”

Lori Suddick, president of College of Lake County in Grayslake, said joining the Partnership’s initiative was indeed “a pretty easy yes. I had an executive team that wasn’t yet aligned around what equity work meant.”

The Partnership’s Equity Academy gave her senior team “a safe space to build their knowledge as a team” around nationally recognized best practices for raising graduation rates for diverse students, she said.

Her faculty also attended training and followed up by launching a book group for themselves on grading for equity, such as prioritizing content mastery over meeting hard-and-fast deadlines, which can create a barrier for some students, including single parents. “The PCC team has done a superb job of tapping into good examples” of what other colleges and universities are doing, Suddick said. “The speakers they’ve brought in have helped challenge the thinking and mindset of many people.”

David Sanders, president of Malcolm X College in Chicago, said that the Illinois Equity in Attainment Initiative encouraged him to break down student outcome data by race, ethnicity, gender, and those with exceptional financial need to see which groups of students needed the most targeted support. “I think that’s a critical tool that they gave to all of us,” he said.

His school’s 38-page equity plan, which drew on input from faculty and students, includes enriching the first-year experience for students with seminars on self-care and career planning, replacing what he called “dead end” developmental courses with the choice of free summer classes or a corequisite model, and system to intervene quickly with struggling students to offer academic support or other campus services.

Joining the Illinois Equity in Attainment Initiative “was not only the right decision,” Sanders said, “but a decision that if we had back, we would do over and over again.”

While higher education equity in Illinois has far to go, Castillo Richmond observes that the momentum is building. In the coming years, she anticipates more changes in practice and a rise in graduation rates. “I think we’re going to see some serious movement in institutions that have stepped up to address inequities,” she said. “I think there’s going to be a wave that sweeps the state and makes Illinois a leader in some of these issues.”