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Illinois community college leaders highlight student success, economic impact

Community College

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. - Community college leaders say Illinois continues to see a strong return on investment for students, businesses, and the economy. They also stress that graduates from Illinois community colleges get stable jobs and tend to stay in their communities.

A new economic impact study shows the colleges helped generate $3.5 billion and over 43,000 jobs during Fiscal Year 2020. The Northern Illinois University Center for Governmental Studies found graduates with an associate degree have an employment rate of 85%. That goes up to 92% ten years after graduation.

Illinois has 48 community colleges spread out across every region of the state. Leaders say they're committed to creating an equitable path to economic mobility.

"As the largest workforce training provider in Illinois, community colleges create an educated and skilled workforce that addresses current and future needs of many critical industries throughout our state," said ICCB Chair Lazaro Lopez.

Addressing the worker shortage through job training

Many people have recently said they don't want to return to low-paying jobs or careers that put them in danger of contracting COVID-19. Community colleges are now seeing a surge of new students because of that change.

"If there is a need in a specific industry that arises over the course of a short amount of time, the college can develop those programs in a non-credit way where they're up and running almost immediately. They can work to retrain workers that want to move up," said ICCB Executive Director Brian Durham.

Black students with long-term certificates or associates in Applied Science programs increased their earnings by 88%. Latino students gaining the same certifications also increased their income by 119%.

"The state's 39 community college districts serve more underrepresented minority students than all other higher education institutions combined," Durham said.

Benefiting from the workforce equity initiative

LaCrea Lott had the opportunity to transition from working as a CNA to a Medical Assistant at Springfield Clinic thanks to the workforce equity initiative program created in 2019. Lott says the free training available at Lincoln Land Community College through this grant program allows many to overcome barriers.

"Many students now believe and have faith that, yes even at 30 like me, it is not too late to fulfill their dreams," Lott said.

Lott hopes to one day become a nurse practitioner, a physician assistant, or a adolescent therapist.

"A lot of students are eager and want to come to community college," Lott said. "There’s different careers that the WEI program offers as far as medical assistant, CNA, pharmacy technician, CDL."

Leaders celebrate the success, but they know there's still more work to do

The study also found short term certificates can help people get jobs quickly. For example, some graduates working in electrical and power transmission make nearly $70,000 three years after completing their programs. Others working in fire protection, criminal justice, and technology also had good-paying jobs after community college.

Researchers say students that graduated from construction and architecture programs made over $60,000 five years after graduating. Likewise, graduates from manufacturing programs earn $54,000 within that same timeframe.

But the state still hopes to improve. Roughly 20% of the potential student base don't further their education. Board members want to get that number even lower over the next few years.

"While we're very proud of this document and proud of the work we do, I think it's important that we also take this as a challenge to expand that. We can do more, and we will," said Terry Wilkerson, Rend Lake Community College President.

The Illinois Chamber of Commerce says finding employees with the right workforce skills remains a top challenge for employers.

"Our economic future depends on it," said Todd Maisch, President and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce. "Community colleges provide these skills to thousands of Illinoisans, allowing them to build careers and help employers prosper."

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Mike Miletich

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