By RORYE O’CONNOR
MT. VERNON — —
The U.S. Department of Education’s 2012 bus tour made a stop in Jefferson County today, during which it hosted discussions about partnerships between education and industry.
The events kicked off at Rend Lake College, with a round table discussion between Sue Liu, special assistant for community colleges, and about a dozen RLC students.
Liu said the best ideas about education come from the places the Department of Education visits on its annual bus tours, and she loves to hear what students have to say.
“I’ve heard so much about Rend Lake College,” she said. “It’s a great place to be.”
She discussed President Barack Obama’s goal to regain the top worldwide college graduation rate in 2020.
“That would gain Americans some social capital and provide more economic competitiveness,” she said, adding that the U.S. is 16th in the world in college graduation rates right now.
She asked the students to introduce themselves and explain how they came to be enrolled at RLC. Some students, such as Jessica Barbera, were beginning their first semesters at the college, while students such as Malinda Burton were starting their second bout at the school.
“It took me a little while to figure out what I want to do,” she said. “I was an honor student who went into the STARS program. The support has helped me as a single parent to overcome the obstacles I was facing. I was looking at dropping out because of life, and I’m so glad I didn’t, because I will be a chef one day.”
Leah Stallman, RLC TRIO programs director, said two-thirds of the students the college serves are from low income backgrounds, which is why programs such as Student Support Services, or STARS, are vital to the school.
“If a student chooses to come to Rend Lake and transition into STARS, we offer support through workshops and tutoring,” she said. “Nothing is off limits.”
Liu asked the students, as they all came to college for different reasons, what was the point they realized that college was important?
Joelle Keener said her father was a disabled veteran and her mother cleaned houses for a living, so she said she wanted to be better than what she was born into.
Liu said the experiences of the RLC students, as well as the other students she’s spoken to across the country, speak to the “strength of community colleges across the country — the resourcefulness of the faculty and students.”
“I’ve heard a lot about that today, about the STARS program and how hard the students were working and how much support they were receiving from faculty here,” she said. “That’s one thing I’ve heard very consistently throughout community colleges.”
She said this year’s trip began in Silicon Valley and has come in a straight line across middle America. On Wednesday, officials visited St. Louis and Columbia, Mo.
Liu said each students’ experience at community colleges across the country is unique due to the open door policy of community higher education.
A second round table discussion was organized between Liu and faculty and staff from RLC.
Liu said she appreciated the fact that a “wide cross-section” of faculty and staff members from the college attended the discussion.
“We’re always looking for examples of what’s working at community colleges so we can replicate it on other campuses,” she said.
She asked the attendees what programs they felt were working to help students succeed.
Lisa Price, dean of student services at RLC, said students are required to meet with an advisor until they’ve completed 30 hours, and advisor appointments have been scheduled with students prior to graduation to make sure they apply for graduation. She said the pre-graduation appointments have helped keep students from falling through the cracks.
Stallman said another program that’s helping is early alerts — collecting attendance and progress information from teachers as early as three weeks into the semester to monitor students’ progress.
Liu asked what partnerships the college has in place.
Price said there are dual credit courses offered at 12 of the 13 county high schools.
“That program is pretty strong,” she said. “There are business partnerships, and it saves parents money.”
The third round table discussion on Wednesday was between U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education Tony Miller, school administrators and city and county officials.
Miller said the U.S. Department of Education realizes the world is very different today than it was 10 years ago.
“Manufacturing jobs that were thought to be dead and dying, well that’s not the case,” he said. “You’ve got more manufacturing jobs than there are people to fill them. You all clearly have something special going on here.”
Miller said he’s interested in how the relationships between schools and businesses has evolved in the last five years.
Terry Wilkerson, RLC president, said manufacturers met with college administrators and told them the skill sets that were missing from the local workforce.
He said figuring out how to fill the gaps in the workforce was the challenge, when the college had to figure out the difference between what local industry wanted and what they could provide.
Jim Nelson, vice president of external affairs of the Illinois Manufacturing Association, said there isn’t a standard mechanism for determining how to provide the needed workforce in an area, that it “works from the ground up.”
He said manufacturing jobs are the largest single sector in the Illinois gross domestic product, and that manufacturing is still critically important to the state.
Miller asked the attendees what the process of working together was like in terms of egos across the aisle.
Wilkerson said the community is too small for people to not get along.
“We’re all here, we’re all invested in the young people of the community,” he said.
Mt. Vernon Mayor Mary Jane Chesley said the community is unique because of all the manufacturing opportunities for the local workforce.
She praised Mt. Vernon Township High School for offering biomedical engineering as a part of its Project Lead the Way program, a career pathway program with a focus in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
“I’ve lived here all my life ... and I’ve never seen a partnership like the one that’s come together,” she said. “It’s because of the growth potential in this area.”
Miller asked the attendees permission to share Mt. Vernon’s story with others at the Department of Education.
“Part of this tour is to listen and take your message back,” he said.
He said he believes the challenge of higher education today is the disconnect between the need for a degree and the rising cost of college and university tuition.
“If you look at it in terms of employment levels, you’re 3.5 times more likely to be employed with some kind of post-secondary education,” he said. “The difference in lifetime employment can be $1 million. Parents are increasingly understanding that, but there’s an incredible rise in tuition and the net price students actually pay.”
He said part of the challenge is that with the economy, some resources such as home equity loans are no longer available to parents hoping to finance their child’s college education.
He said the overarching theme he heard during Wednesday’s discussions was about the power of partnership and community.
“I’m encouraged by how facile all the members were with core issues,” he said. “They can talk about skill gaps, the dimensions of the workforce. What struck me today was the holistic perspective everyone has taken. It’s encouraging, and it’s what it’s going to take.”