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The 7 percent solution

Chancellor Cheryl Hyman promises student success at her—"reinvented"—alma mater, the City Colleges. Can she deliver?

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On April Fool's Day 2010, Cheryl L. Hyman—Mayor Richard M. Daley's controversial choice for chancellor at the City Colleges of Chicago—stepped into her new job. A 41-year-old Commonwealth Edison executive, Hyman had never been a college teacher and her experience as an academic administrator was zero. Her most striking qualification for the top job at the huge, seven-college institution seemed to be the fact that she was an up-by-the-bootstraps product of the system she would now rule. A onetime high school dropout, Hyman graduated from Olive-Harvey College and the Illinois Institute of Technology, then earned two master's degrees (from North Park and Northwestern) while fast-tracking through the ranks at ComEd, where she wound up as vice president of operational strategy and business intelligence. Daley gave her the job with a mandate for serious change. It may turn out to be a good thing, but it hasn't been totally welcome.

Blame Obama. And his education czar, former CPS head Arne Duncan. With other countries outstripping the U.S. in the number of college graduates among their citizens (the U.S. ranked 12th in one 2010 study), they're campaigning to get us back into first place. In 2009, noting that the majority of community college students wind up as degree-less dropouts with nothing to show for their college experience but student loan debt, Obama declared "The American Graduation Initiative." He promised to fund programs that will strengthen the nation by keeping students on track. The bulk of the funding never came through, but Daley got the message that "a skilled workforce is necessary to compete in the global economy" and challenged Hyman to turn the City Colleges—Harold Washington, Harry S. Truman, Kennedy-King, Malcolm X, Olive-Harvey, Richard J. Daley, and Wilbur Wright—into "an economic engine for the city." Mayor Rahm Emanuel has kept her on, regularly praises her efforts, and refers to the City Colleges as the "front line of our new economy."

And that's what's making some people nervous. "Economic engine" seems to run counter to the long-time mission of the City Colleges of Chicago, which will celebrate its hundredth birthday this year and has been, since its founding, a gateway not just to a job but to broad educational and intellectual opportunity, regardless of social or economic status.

The question of whether the "People's College" (its original name) should be a vocational school was chewed over at its birth by the likes of Jane Addams and William Rainey Harper—and discarded. In America, and in Chicago, city colleges would ensure a democracy of the mind. Vocational training was eventually added without changing that principle, at least in theory. But there's a new, results-oriented trend in education that looks like it could turn community colleges into glorified job-training centers, providing a skilled workforce but "tracking" low-income students into dead-end jobs. These institutions would be run like businesses, with the decision-making power in the hands of executives rather than academics and an emphasis on efficiency. Serendipitous intellectual inquiry and academic autonomy would be luxuries and scarce.

There are logical reasons for this trend, including the ever-higher costs of higher ed, and a flurry of studies supporting it—among them, a November 2010 report by McKinsey & Company, a Washington-based consulting firm that's playing a major role in the changes at City Colleges. Titled "Winning by Degrees," it tells how to "improve productivity in higher education's core process of transforming freshmen into degree-holders."

The five practices the McKinsey report promotes for building "degree productivity" include "redesigning the delivery of instruction" (by, for example, "substituting full-time faculty with part-time faculty") and "reducing non-productive credits," which "may give students extra educational benefit," but add to the cost. If these strategies are fully and widely adopted, the report says, "the nation could produce a million more degrees by 2020" without spending any more money.

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