Report: City Colleges of Chicago watered down standards, issued thousands more degrees

Report: City Colleges of Chicago watered down standards, issued thousands more degrees

Illinois’ largest community college system saw a decrease in enrollment, but a doubling of degrees.

A joint investigation by the Better Government Association, or BGA, and Crain’s Chicago Business has revealed the City Colleges of Chicago issued thousands of degrees after lowering credit hours requirements and watering down education standards in an apparent effort to manipulate data and help boost the City Colleges’ reputation.

From 2011 to 2016, the number of degrees given out more than doubled, reaching over 5,000, according to the report. At the same time, the City Colleges’ graduation rates also increased to 17 percent, up from 7 percent.

And while Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has publicly boasted about these seemingly improved stats, he rarely mentions the drop in enrollment.

The report shows as graduation rates have increased, enrollment has continued to decline. By 2017, enrollment had plummeted to 83,000 students, a 35 percent drop since 2011, and a 25-year low.

“There is no debate over whether graduation rates and completion numbers are up — they are,” BGA and Crain’s investigative report stated. “But the investigation found that largely the result of a systematic campaign to boost metrics that has given Emanuel ammunition to proclaim in frequent appearances across the nation that the City Colleges’ overhaul is a trend-bucking, higher-education success story.”

City Colleges lowered the required amount of credit hours necessary for general education course requirements to 20 from 30, and got rid of math requirements. On top of that, City Colleges also lowered the classroom credit hours requirement for obtaining degrees to 15 from 21.

From 2010 to 2016, City Colleges retroactively issued more than 2,800 degrees, many of which were awarded to students who had been out of school for years. The move was made possible through City Colleges’ automated conferral program in which degrees were sent to students who hadn’t attended class in years, or even decades.

Chicago’s City Colleges system is made up of seven campuses throughout the city and constitutes Illinois’ largest single community college system. While the City Colleges were traditionally seen as avenues for adult education, affordable paths for transfer credits, and high school-level degree attainment, the City Colleges system underwent an overhaul in 2010 to make it more career-focused.

The so-called “reinvention” initiative was a series of reforms through which City Colleges planned to improve degree attainment, job placement and career advancement. One of the four main goals of the initiative was to “[i]ncrease the number of students earning college credentials of economic value.”

But despite this focus on economically valuable college credentials, BGA found that Associate in General Studies, or AGS, degrees, were skyrocketing after the reinvention initiative was put in place.

Unlike other more specific degrees or certifications, AGS degrees offer few clear career paths for graduates and provide questionable standalone value to employers. In 2010, City Colleges only awarded 150 AGS degrees, but by 2014 the number had increased to 1,417, according to the report. However, the same cannot be said for other Illinois community college systems where AGS degrees are far less prevalent.

The report explains that close to one-third of degrees issued by City Colleges were AGS, while AGS degrees only accounted for 7.5 percent of associate degrees awarded by all other Illinois community college systems.

In response, City Colleges of Chicago derided the impression created by BGA/Crain’s research as “completely false,” though it did not dispute the accuracy of the data used in the report.

The most recent investigation is not the first time City Colleges have been accused of inflating graduation numbers. City Colleges have been openly issuing retroactive degrees for years and have resorted to other controversial methods to award degrees.

Crain’s reported in 2015 that City Colleges adopted a posthumous degree program in 2013, pursuant to which deceased students could be awarded degrees if those students had completed three-quarters of the requirements necessary to graduate. On top of that, City Colleges has used “reverse transfer” credits in order to allow students who transfer to other colleges or universities to qualify for degrees from City Colleges. Under this program, credits obtained at other institutions to which City Colleges students transfer can be submitted to retroactively satisfy degree requirements at City Colleges.

City Colleges has also faced scrutiny over institutional spending priorities. In 2011, City Colleges’ then chancellor spent millions of dollars on new administrators and consultants. At the time, critics wondered why the money wasn’t going toward classrooms or scholarships.

The findings of the joint BGA/Crain’s report are just the latest in a troubling trend for City Colleges that values boosting degree statistics over real education and career training. City Colleges needs to readjust its institutional priorities to focus on improving curriculum and career opportunities, not simply churning out degrees or favorable, paper-thin metrics to fuel talking points.

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