WASHINGTON, D.C. - Dr. Jill Biden, a community college professor and wife to U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, joined Education Secretary Arne Duncan on Monday to announce a list of the 120 top community colleges in the nation. Among those – Rend Lake College in Ina, Ill.
RLC was one of five Illinois community colleges to make the list – ranked by the Washington D.C.-based non-profit The Aspen Institute. Other Illinois colleges include Southeastern Illinois College in Harrisburg, Lake Land College in Mattoon and two members of Illinois Eastern Community Colleges, Olney Central College in Olney and Lincoln Trail College in Robinson.
“A large part of the data this competition was based on was our graduation rates at RLC,” said President Charley D. Holstein. “In that regard, we rank second among public two-year colleges in the state of Illinois. Being ranked in the top five in the state and top 120 of the nation’s 1,200 community colleges for something like that is a monumental credit to the hard work our faculty and staff put in each day, and of course to the students who made the smart decision to enroll and graduate from RLC. With one of the lowest tuition rates in the state, we feel we offer individuals educational programming of value and worth. I encourage anyone looking to complete your first two-years of college or gain accelerated access to a career, to come check us out.”
According to a report by Yahoo News, community colleges are now the fastest-growing sector of higher education in the country at 40 percent of total undergrads nationwide and six-million students strong.
The Aspen competition kicked off at a White House conference on community colleges last fall as part of an initiative to improve graduation rates at two-year, public educational institutions each year, according to Yahoo. Winners were based on Department of Education data showing what percentage of students successfully graduate from community college or transfer to a four-year university. Judges also looked at the number of low-income and minority students who completed their programs of study and if those rates improved over time. The 120 winners, representing the top 10 percent of the country’s 1,200 community colleges, can now enter to win a $1,000,000 prize.
RLC has the second-best graduation rate, 44%, among public two-year colleges in Illinois, according to the Illinois Community College Board. While college administrators constantly look for ways to improve that rate, RLC students are performing considerably better than their peers at colleges the ICCB has deemed similar in demographics. RLC students are also more than doubling the state average of 21% completion and/or transfer rates.
One goal of The Aspen Institute initiative is to identify schools with good graduation rates, less students coming in requiring remedial courses in math and reading , and a high rate of courses transferring to universities. Their strategies could be exported to schools struggling in those areas, according to the Yahoo report.
So what is RLC’s secret?
Chris Kuberski, RLC Vice President of Academic Instruction, mentioned a handful of ingredients that have helped account for its success. Those include challenging faculty to find ways to make their classrooms more engaging for their students, a renewed focus on student learning assessment, a staff of committed and engaged student-advisors, making the graduation application readily available at the student’s final advisement appointment, and in-class tutoring.
In-class tutoring puts tutors right in the classrooms of subjects with low completion rates. The tutors are there to help students who feel they are falling behind. It was piloted in college preparatory classes at RLC several years ago when graduation rates were at 25%.
“The numbers have incrementally increased and our metrics continue to show an upward trend, so we are definitely doing something right,” Holstein said.
“We are here because we want our students to graduate,” said Kuberski. “We don’t want them to drop out. We want them to be successful and have the doors of opportunity open for them.”
Holstein said the college is planning to apply for the Aspen prize. He added that a share of student success at RLC can be partly attributed to the college’s Learning Enhancement Center where any student can get free tutoring.
“I believe, if we have a recipe for success, it’s a concerted effort to focus on the needs of our students.”