Governors State program aims to answer Obama’s call to raise graduation rates
BY SUSAN DEMAR LAFFERTY firstname.lastname@example.org August 23, 2012 6:36PM
Joliet Junior College student, Kayla Randolph-Clark, who is a resident of Joliet. Supplied photo.
Updated: September 25, 2012 6:03AM
At age 40, and after five different careers, Addison Jackson plans to earn a doctorate in social work.
Kayla Randolph-Clark, 27, has her sights on a law degree, after bouncing around at various colleges since high school.
For both students, signing up for Governors State University’s Dual Degree Program marked the first step toward their goals. The nationally acclaimed initiative is designed to help students complete their associate’s degree at their local community college and then seamlessly transfer to GSU in University Park to earn their bachelor’s, getting both degrees within four years.
The program is GSU’s response to President Barack Obama’s call to boost college graduation rates to 60 percent by 2020, according to Linda Uzureau, GSU’s assistant to the president for community college partnerships.
“We spent so much time worrying about enrollment and not about student success, retention or completion,” she said.
The key is that GSU begins working with students on their four-year plan as soon as they enroll in the program. Efforts are made to ease the transfer process and get students acclimated to the campus to make them want to stay. Affordability — a big factor in whether students drop out before they can get a degree — also is stressed, and because GSU partnered with eight local community colleges, the opportunity to stay close to home and save on room and board is notable.
While still at their community colleges, students also get many benefits offered to GSU students.
GSU’s program, then in its infancy, was praised by U.S. Department of Education Under Secretary Dr. Martha J. Kanter when she visited last year during a nationwide tour of schools considered by the department as “islands of excellence.”
But one of the self-proclaimed “biggest cheerleaders” for the program is a student — Jackson.
“You don’t have to be Harvard-bound to be successful in college,” he said.
Now a sophomore at Prairie State College in Chicago Heights, Jackson said he enrolled in the Dual Degree Program because he needs his transition to wherever he pursues future degrees to be seamless. At 40, he can’t “waste time,” he said, and his goal is to earn his doctorate in sociology by 2018.
“This program is an opportunity not only to jump-start your career, but to do it debt-free,” he said.
In the spring of 2010, GSU president Elaine Maimon got together with local community colleges to see how they could work collaboratively to address graduation rates, and the Dual Degree Program was born.
“We’re extremely excited about this. We think this is a model for other colleges to consider,” Uzureau said. “We help community college students from time they enroll and create a four-year plan right from the get-go.”
The program students are assigned university advisers — “transfer specialists” — when they enter the program, usually during the second semester of their first year at community college. Advisers visit the student’s campus, map out the classes they need for the future, then help them work toward their associate’s degree and transfer to the university of their choice.
Those who decide to continue their education at GSU will have guaranteed admission, a locked-in tuition rate for four years, eligibility for scholarships so they can graduate from GSU debt-free, peer mentoring from experienced students, and all the benefits of an enrolled GSU student.
GSU partnered with eight community colleges: Moraine Valley, Prairie State, South Suburban, Joliet, Kankakee, Triton, Morton and College of DuPage.
With an $875,000 grant from the Kresge Foundation, the university hired three transfer specialists who spend two days each week on a community college campus. Funds also are used to provide training for peer mentors.
GSU also focused on raising funds to provide scholarships for community college students, Uzureau said.
Fans of the program
About 200 students have signed up, and the first group of Dual Degree Program students to enter GSU as juniors did so this week when classes began Monday, Uzureau said.
Randolph-Clark, of Joliet, was among about 40 such students after earning her associate’s degree at Joliet Junior College a few months ago.
The program is not difficult to get into, “as long you go to school to go to school,” Randolph-Clark said. “I know a lot of college dropouts. A lot of my friends didn’t finish. A lot of kids lack focus. This program keeps me on track.”
For Randolph-Clark, having a transfer specialist was a “major benefit” to the program.
“I jumped around community colleges for awhile. Then I realized I had to commit to school,” she said. “They help you register, and keep you on track through the end. It saves you time and money.”
GSU was one of her options because it allowed her to continue her part-time job.
“I had not made up my mind, but the Dual Degree Program helped me make that decision to attend GSU, and the tuition cost was locked in,” Randolph-Clark said.
Receiving one of 50 GSU “Promise” scholarships was an added bonus. “Promise” scholarships are awarded to low-income students who maintain a grade-point average of 2.8 or higher and are eligible for federal Pell grants, Uzureau said. GSU pays whatever costs remain after the Pell grant and Illinois Monetary Award Program have kicked in.
Honor scholarships were awarded to 13 students this year who maintained GPAs of at least 3.5, she said.
More than half of the students who received the scholarships this year were African-American and Hispanic, Uzureau said, and those are the students who usually don’t complete college. If the country is to boost its college completion rates, it has to address the needs of low-income, minority students, she said.
“There are so many more people without a degree than with one,” Jackson said. “Without a degree, I don’t have a leg to stand on.”
That’s why the Oak Forest man wants to help create a “culture of success.”
For him, the “cornerstone” of the Dual Degree Program is peer mentoring. Students who have earned their associate’s degrees return to assist community college freshmen. Students in the program will know each other when they arrive at GSU, and that’s an important connection, Uzureau said.
Jackson, president of PSC’s student government association, has a GSU friend who helps him navigate the waters. In turn, he helps fellow Prairie State students.
“I like doing things as a group effort. We all have the same goal. There is always someone you can talk to,” he said. “Sometimes we need a little bump to keep going.”
Students motivate, encourage and keep each other on track, whether it’s registering for classes, seeking financial aid or surviving final exams.
“We try to keep everyone connected. College can be a lonely place when you first start,” Jackson said.
“Yes, I’m 40, but I can instill in young people the drive to become a better person,” he said. “One thing that can never be taken from you is your knowledge.
“I have three daughters who will go to college. I want to set an example for them. I’m not just going to walk across the stage and get a piece of paper. My goal is to graduate summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa.”