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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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CHERYL HYMAN HAS A COOLLY COMPOSED veneer and a reputation for being forceful—qualities that likely helped her survive a punishing Chicago childhood. She was born and grew up on the city's west side, mostly in public housing at the Henry Horner Homes. An only child whose parents were drug addicts (she says they're both recovered now), she left an unbearable home at the age of 16, dropping out of high school and taking a job at Kentucky Fried Chicken to support herself before concluding that fast food wasn't a great career route for somebody pining for high tech. She returned to high school and graduated, and then made what she says is a common mistake for a young person.

"Sometimes, when you're growing up and you're faced with very tough circumstances, like I was, you look for those quick fixes: How can I quickly get educated and just get a job? That was the mind-set I was in, and I went to a six-month trade school. After six months the school closed, and I was left with a student loan and no job to pay it back."

Hyman says she promptly came to the realization that "there are no short cuts in life."

Moving in with her grandmother, she enrolled at the City Colleges's far-south-side campus, Olive-Harvey, where a math teacher and a counselor helped her carve a path to a computer science major at IIT. She joined ComEd in 1996. She's now riding herd on a City Colleges budget (for 2012) of $651 million.

Hyman says she was "humbled" by her appointment and did need some time to visit the colleges and learn about them. She was assisted by consultants from McKinsey & Company and the Civic Consulting Alliance (the consulting arm of the Commercial Club of Chicago) who worked, initially pro bono, to "dig into the metrics" with her. By midsummer she'd hired former McKinsey consultant (and Renaissance 2010 Fund official) Alvin Bisarya as vice chancellor of strategy and institutional intelligence. In March 2011, Donald Laackman, a principal at the Civic Consulting Alliance, was installed as president of Harold Washington College. And last January, McKinsey was awarded a half-million-dollar contract for work on City Colleges changes this year.

More consultants were hired to help Hyman craft her vision, and at a November 18, 2010, press conference with Daley and new board president Martin Cabrera Jr. (appointed to the board a month earlier), the trio rolled out the plan, branded in current business jargon as "the Reinvention." City Colleges, previously focused on access, would now be focused on something more elusive: student success.

The reinvention had four broad goals:
(1) More students earning college credentials of economic value.
(2) More students transferring to four-year schools after graduating from City Colleges.
(3) Drastic improvement in remediation outcomes.
(4) More students in GED, ESL, and basic skill classes moving into college-level courses.

To achieve these goals, a "collaborative" process was set up: task forces managed by Bisarya's office and made up of appointed (and paid) constituents from the college community (faculty, staff, and students) would spend a semester studying one of eight predetermined areas. By the end of the semester they would come up with recommendations that would, according to a slick, 44-page "Reinvention" brochure, be evaluated by "CCC leadership." Sixty task force members were selected from 300 volunteers; each task force worked with an external "advisory council" made up primarily of businesspeople.

The four goals quickly became a mantra, though no numerical targets were attached to them. What was spelled out in hard numbers was a case for change that made it clear that the City Colleges—at least in recent years—have been stupendous failures. One of the biggest community college systems in the country, CCC has 120,000 students on seven campuses and seven satellite locations. But, according to data cited by Hyman, very few CCC students who are seeking a degree or certificate actually get it. The City Colleges graduation rate, calculated by following first-time, full-time students for three years, is just 7 percent.

That's the most controversial figure in the reinvention story, but it's not the only bad news CCC's been spreading about itself. A video on the official reinvention website, backed by a bouncy score, notes that more than half of first-year students drop out during or after their first semester. The reinvention brochure points out, among many statistics it cites, that only 16 percent of CCC students manage to transfer to a four-year university and a mere 4 or 5 percent wind up with a bachelor's degree.

And then there's the stat that explains a lot of those dismal numbers: more than 90 percent of CCC students require remedial work. Among those coming from Chicago Public Schools, it's 97 percent.

Every faculty member I spoke with took issue with the way the graduation rate, cited frequently by both the chancellor and the mayor, was calculated. They say limiting the group to first-time full-time students, with a deadline of three years, can't be representative of schools where the majority of students are part-timers, holding down jobs and/or juggling families, and where many (at CCC about half) are in noncredit classes, not necessarily aiming for an associate's degree. And they say claims of declining enrollment, also prominently cited in the arguments for reinvention, are misleading and "erroneous," tilted by huge programs that have been phased out (including one on military bases that served 32,000 students). On the contrary, they say, relevant enrollment actually increased between 2006 and 2010 by more than 13,000 students.

One of those pissed-off profs is Wright College humanities department chair Sheldon Liebman, who notes that the same district research office that put out the 7 percent figure conducted a six-year study concluded in 2008 that had CCC's graduation rate at about double Hyman's figure: 13.3 percent. (When Hyman's team, in response to this argument, lengthened the time span to six years, they got 13 percent as well.)

"Here we are, working hard, in many cases for half the salary of university professors, teaching five courses instead of three, an earnest, dedicated staff," Liebman says. "I'm afraid that when you bring in businesspeople, they just don't understand it. There's a real disconnect between the dedication and seriousness and ability on one side, and a kind of distrust and lack of experience on the other." Meanwhile, Liebman says, "decisions that have been made supposedly in the interest of improving education have been wrongheaded."

Among them, a corporate-style push for centralization that, among other things, replaced individual graduations this spring with one unwieldy combined ceremony at the UIC Pavilion, and an expensive rebranding effort, including an arbitrary change in each school's logo and colors that many perceive as an attempt to diminish the individual identities of the colleges. Then there was the new zero-based budgeting, introduced with a nearly zero time frame.

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