TOPICS > Education > Rethinking College

Grad rates double after reinvention of Chicago City Colleges

August 28, 2014 at 6:37 PM EST
Just 20 percent of community college students complete a degree in the U.S. Cheryl Hyman, chief of City Colleges of Chicago, is reshaping her school system to not only provide wide access to higher education, but to put students on the fastest track to relevant credentials. Hari Sreenivasan talks to Hyman, whose reforms have come with critique for making major cuts.
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GWEN IFILL: Next: For years, community colleges in America have opened their doors to everyone, offering a huge variety of courses at a fraction of the cost. But with only 5 percent of community college students graduating on time, should the schools be revamped?

The city of Chicago believes so, and has hired a controversial chancellor who has her own story of transformation.

Hari is back with the next in our series on Rethinking College.

CHERYL HYMAN, Chancellor, City Colleges of Chicago: These are all natural science classes.

WOMAN: Yes.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Cheryl Hyman knows these hallways better than most. After all, she walked them some 20 years ago as a community college student.

CHERYL HYMAN: Let’s see if I can recognize any of my old classrooms.

WOMAN: All righty.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Today, she walks as the boss. In 2010, Hyman was asked by Chicago’s mayor to leave a lucrative job at the utility giant Commonwealth Edison to become chancellor of City Colleges of Chicago, one of the largest community college systems in the country.

CHERYL HYMAN: This is how much closer we need to get to the target.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Hyman manages a budget of $650 million, oversees 5,700 of employees and seven college campuses.

CHERYL HYMAN: I just wanted to stop in and say hi.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Her task was to turn around a dismal record. Only 7 percent of the 115,000 students were graduating.

CHERYL HYMAN: Good luck, and thanks for attending City Colleges of Chicago.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Like many of the students at City Colleges of Chicago, Hyman had a challenging childhood.

CHERYL HYMAN: How are you?

GIRL: It’s my birthday.

CHERYL HYMAN: Happy birthday!

HARI SREENIVASAN: Raised in Chicago’s public housing by parents addicted to drugs, she left home at age 17, dropped out of high school and, for a time, became homeless.

Against the odds, Hyman returned to school, getting her high school diploma, a bachelor’s degree, and an MBA from Northwestern University’s prestigious Kellogg School of Management.

How important is it for someone that’s sitting in that sort of prospective student’s chair to say, here’s a woman that came through the housing authority, she went through corporate America and she’s running this place; I could see myself in her shoes?

CHERYL HYMAN: I think a lot. I think a lot.

What many of our students need more than anything else is hope. A lot of times, they walk through our doors, and they don’t have that. And I think, without that, it doesn’t matter what type of education we’re providing them. They will never think that they can make it out of their circumstances, or they will somehow think that their circumstances dictate their destiny.

And I try very hard to give them that hope that that’s not true. That’s part of why I came from corporate America and took this job.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Now Hyman hopes to reinvent the City Colleges of Chicago.

CHERYL HYMAN: Reinvention to me is, how do you establish a model which helps you shift the paradigm of how community colleges should be defined, shift the paradigm from institutions that have typically been solely focused on access to those who now couple access with success?

And what we mean by success is that students are completing what they came here for in a timely manner, and that those credentials are relevant.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Currently, only 5 percent of the 8.3 million students enrolled in community colleges around the nation graduate on time. That means 35 million Americans over the age of 25 have some college credit, but no degree.

Were students coming to City Colleges and taking credits that they didn’t particularly need or wouldn’t translate into a job?

CHERYL HYMAN: Yes. They were. They would come in with a perception of, I want to be X, and then they would thumb through this huge course catalog to try to put their future together with the limited information and guidance.

HARI SREENIVASAN: When Hyman arrived at City Colleges of Chicago, she says too many students were taking too many classes that didn’t advance them toward a degree. As a result, many dropped out.

Others like Shaina Henderson say they wasted time and money. Henderson ended up with 88 credits, 26 more than she needed for her associate’s degree.

SHAINA HENDERSON: I didn’t necessarily know how to navigate college and how to select my classes, so I took art because I figured that, you know, I like drawing, but I didn’t know necessarily if they will count towards my graduation.

CHERYL HYMAN: What’s really going to determine when we offer what and how often we offer it is students’ availability.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Hyman tripled the number of student advisers and crated course-by-course career paths for every student.

CHERYL HYMAN: So, we have launched the Student GPS, the Guided Pathway to Success, which now takes what we know to be the relevant industries which represent the job market, which represent what four-year institutions look for, and so we have taken those and put them in clear semester-by-semester pathways.

HARI SREENIVASAN: New transfer agreements with four-year universities ensured college students were taking proper courses towards a bachelor’s degree.

That seems kind of basic. That seems fundamental.

CHERYL HYMAN: It does.

HARI SREENIVASAN: I would have expected that a city college or any college would have my credits to transfer.

CHERYL HYMAN: It does seem very fundamental to you and I, but it was revolutionary when I started talking about it through reinvention. Students would — they would get their associate’s degree and transfer and only half their credits would transfer.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The change helped Shaina Henderson transfer to the University of Illinois.

SHAINA HENDERSON: And no one else in my family had reached that type of milestone in their lives, because they always had — had to take care of their family or have — like, have to work. So I figured to take it upon myself to have that accomplishment for my family will make us all proud.

HARI SREENIVASAN: In three years since Hyman launched her reinvention campaign, graduation rates have nearly doubled. The number of degrees awarded jumped from 2,000 to 4,000.

But the reinvention of City Colleges has also met with controversy. Hyman, who has no background in education, was under fire from faculty for hiring expensive outside business consultants. At the same time, she took the drastic move of replacing six out of seven college presidents.

CHERYL HYMAN: We can those buildings open seven days a weeks, 24 hours a day. Students still have to juggle their schedules.

HARI SREENIVASAN: She cut staff, eliminating courses and other costs, and took a hard line on labor negotiations to save $51 million.

What is the hardest part of changing a culture?

CHERYL HYMAN: Well, the hardest part of change is culture. I think the hardest part of changing culture is, you have to convince everybody that you’re changing not to hurt them, but you’re changing so that everybody can have a win-win.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Hyman’s sweeping changes at City Colleges of Chicago will be watched closely by both critics and supporters, as her reinvention plan heads into its fourth year this fall.

GWEN IFILL: Tomorrow, Hari looks at performance funding at public universities. The more students graduate, the more money the institution gets from the state. Online, read about how an Arizona community college is running its campuses like a business, and whether its students benefit from being treated like customers. That’s on our Education page.