In late 2018, the U.S. Census Bureau reported 86 of Illinois’ 102 counties experienced population decline. Closer to home, on June 1, 2019, the Daily Journal reported that most of the region’s major municipalities experienced decline, including a 3 percent population drop in Kankakee County since the 2010 census.
We should have concerns about negative population trends beyond the potential loss of home-rule status. Population decline in Illinois corresponds to the rising cost of college. Sources, including an independent organization called Illinois Policy, state that the cost of college in Illinois increased as much as 100 percent between 2006 and 2016.
Illinois students and their parents face a difficult decision when they realize that out-of-state schools are more affordable than the public universities supported by their own tax dollars. Al Bowman, then executive director of the Illinois Board of Higher Education, was correct when he observed, “Illinois has become fertile ground for institutions around the Midwest to recruit” (Chicago Sun Times; Sept. 21, 2018. “Why Chicago-area high school students are leaving Illinois for college,” Adam Thorp and Jane Recker).
An answer to this problem — and a way to reverse the trend of out migration and shrinking populations — lies in the community college, a resource available in every community in Illinois. Specifically, dual credit programs establish close partnerships between local high schools and the community college. Dual credit means the high school student enrolls in a course — usually at their high school — and earns college credit, and it also counts toward high school graduation.
On June 5, 2019, a group of educators representing Illinois’ high schools, community colleges and state agencies sent the Illinois Community College Board and the Illinois State Board of Education a proposal called “Model Partnership Agreement.” It creates better guidance and structure for agreements between local school districts and community colleges to deliver dual credit. Prompted by recent legislative amendments to Illinois’ Dual Credit Quality Act, the agreement has potential to change the way Illinois schools offer dual credit. Therefore, it can greatly increase access to high quality, rigorous college classes offered at reasonable costs.
The agreement includes provisions which, if implemented locally, will create opportunities for high school students to enroll in core college courses taught at their home high schools for a rate equal to 8 percent of the local community college’s cost. At Kankakee Community College’s current cost of $161 per credit for tuition and fees, the maximum cost to a dual credit student for a three-credit course would be $38.64.
That’s right! A Kankakee-area high school student could enroll in a college-credit course for less than $40. Where it is appropriate, the Model Partnership Agreement also encourages school districts to reduce the rate to students even further, making classes free or very low cost.
Many community college students wish to transfer to public universities. Many of these dual-credit courses, which are a part of the general education core, will transfer because they are part of the Illinois Articulation Initiative, a transfer agreement which includes all Illinois public colleges and universities (learn more at itransfer.org).
Every Illinois community college already has local agreements with school districts to offer dual-credit classes. Successful implementation of the “Model Partnership Agreement” will expand access to every student who is ready for college-level work. But, successful implementation means supporting and encouraging students to enroll.
If we commit to reversing the out migration trend in Illinois, and if we are not content to sit idly by and watch the populations in our villages, towns and cities dwindle away, it is vital that we take pride in our community colleges. It is time for us to leverage strong partnerships, which can exist between school districts and community colleges. As parents, we can have frank conversations with our high school-aged children about their college and career plans. We can speak openly with them about the very real burdens of college loan debt.
As educators, we must be open and flexible in how we deliver instruction to meet the needs of the students whose success we enable. We must focus on the community college as a necessary first two years before entering the workforce or transferring to a university. As citizens, we need to champion our local community college so our students enroll with a sense of pride in their community and all the wonderful things it has to offer.