Rethinking Illinois universities and the workforce

By Jean Lotus Staff Reporter
James Applegate, executive director of the Illinois Board of Higher Education.

James Applegate, executive director of the Illinois Board of Higher Education.

With a stop-gap budget in place, Illinois universities are breathing easier with the state’s commitment to pay at least a portion of the aid the schools were promised.

Now the state’s colleges, universities and community colleges can get back to planning for the future of higher education in Illinois, said James Applegate, executive director of the Illinois Board of Higher Education.

“There is much work to do to improve college affordability, reduce college success gaps for low income and underrepresented students, and increase college opportunity for adult learners already in the workforce (22 percent of whom have some college credits but no degree to show for it),” Applegate said in a bulletin.

Appleton and several higher ed chiefs have joined forces with state legislators and corporate leaders to form the Higher Education Commission on the Future of the Workforce.

The study group, which was created by House Joint Resolution 52, will look at how higher education can make the most impact on the workforce. The group has met three times since December.

The commission hopes to help the state reach the IBHE goal of “60×2025”, or 60 percent of Illinois adults “completing a high-quality, formal postsecondary educational program.” The current “attainment rate” of post-secondary degrees for Illinois adults is 49 percent, according to 2014 data presented by the Lumina Foundation. People in Illinois with a post-secondary degree earn almost $1 million more over their lifetimes than those without, said a report presented to the commission.

Appleton says there’s a talent shortage in Illinois that could pull the state’s economy upward.

“Thousands and thousands of jobs standing open in Illinois because employers can’t find people with college degrees and credentials to fill them,” he said.


Meshing levels of education

One problem the commission is looking at is what educators call “articulation,” how the skills learned in elementary school mesh with middle school and so on into high school and college.

In February, Douglas Baker, president of Northern Illinois University and members of the NIU Regional P-20 Network presented examples of pathways from ninth grade for students to achieve degrees in growing industries. A degree in aviation technology starts with a ninth-grade intro-to-engineering class in the Rockford Public Schools followed by an introductory class in aeronautics in 10th grade and two automotive classes in 11th and 12th grades. This leads to three years in the aviation maintenance program at Rock Valley Community College. Four semesters at NIU gets a student a bachelor’s degree in aviation maintenance tech, which can lead to employment with Lockheed Martin, McDonnell Douglas or a job at O’Hare or Midway airports. Similar pathways were presented in nursing and applied manufacturing technology.

The challenge is convincing regional high schools, community colleges and universities to work together to set up a graduation path.


Attracting adult students

Making college affordable must include community colleges, yet enrollment in the state’s two-year institutions is dropping, said a report presented in April from the group Women Employed. Adult learners who return for non-credit classes are worth pursuing with the hopes that they’ll transition into full-time students and attain a degree, the report said.

 Alice Marie Jacobs , president of Danville Area Community College

Alice Marie Jacobs , president of Danville Area Community College

Danville Area Community College President Alice Marie Jacobs serves on the commission.

“Increasing the skill levels of adults is often a centerpiece of economic development for neighborhoods and communities,” said the report.

City Colleges of Chicago has had success holding on to adult students who have enrolled for a GED and supporting them all the way through an associate’s degree and beyond.

“Adults currently in the workforce are vital to meeting the 60×25 goal,” the report said. Increasing the number of credentials earned by Illinois adults between 20-39-year olds by 2 percent could lead to more than 300,000 credentials, the study shows.

“It’ll take work, but we can do it. To meet the college completion goals of tomorrow, we must include the adults of today,” the report said.


Including employers and industry

Giving students a good idea of jobs waiting after college is the goal of the interactive “Career Cruising” computer program presented by the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council at the February meeting. PERFECT, the Tazewell Area for Employment office provides funding for the career development tool.

Students in Peoria Public Schools, parents and teachers can discover careers and Peoria businesses can attract top talent, said Jennifer Daly, CEO of GPEDC. The council works with regional corporations to tell students about regional job needs, to recruit and retain 25-44-year-old workers and to increase education levels attained by citizens.

The council also sponsors middle-school visitors to Bradley University and Illinois Central College. There’s also an internship-matching program.

Corporate advisers to the commission are Edgar Curtis, president and CEO of, Memorial Health System, Bridget Gainer, VP of Global Affairs for Aon and Jason Keller of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.

The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) assesses “the extent that current educational offerings address the range, type, and scope of skills needed by targeted employers.”

The commission is also looking at how Illinois post-secondary institutions can work together to make credit-transfers easier between schools and how to keep costs down while maintaining quality. Illinois and national job predictions from the U.S. Dept. of labor help the commission make search for “skill gaps” that can be filled by specialized post-secondary programming. Another commission is studying the best way for Illinois universities to meet needs of U.S. military veterans.

The commission will unveil its first recommendations later this year in a report entitled “Connecting the Dots and Bridging the Gaps.”

Appleton said the commission hoped to make up for lost time during the 2015 budget crisis.

“Much of this is being done to set the stage for a rapid return to the path to progress once a budget is passed.” He said. “Going forward, as budgets stabilize, we must focus on strategies that provide dramatic increases in college access and success especially in degree pathways most aligned with the state’s needs.”





—  Rethinking Illinois universities and the workforce —