Chicago-area colleges work to enroll more students

by Jonah Chester
    Illinois News Connection

Since the pandemic began, enrollment in Illinois community colleges has declined to its lowest point in years, and now, one school is working to keep students on track to graduate.

City Colleges of Chicago already has launched two major initiatives to get folks who may have left college during the pandemic to return, or to keep folks in school who are considering leaving.

Veronica Herrero, chief of staff and strategy for the schools, explained the Fresh Start program forgives debts for returning students, and the Future Ready initiative offers free education for high-demand fields.

"We want to make sure that these students, especially if they're doing well and want to complete, that we're making completion accessible and possible for them," Herrero noted.

According to the Illinois Community College Board, enrollment in community colleges across the state dropped from more than 271,000 in 2019 to about 230,000 in 2021, a decline likely partially attributable to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In addition to the new programs, which are largely designed for current or returning students, City Colleges is working to attract students who graduated from Chicago Public Schools in 2020 and 2021 but did not enroll in higher ed.

Herrero pointed out efforts include financial support, free laptops, Wi-Fi connectivity for virtual education and additional academic aid.

"You know, we do everything we can to get the students enrolled in college as they're graduating high school," Herrero observed. "But we saw with the pandemic that many of our students were not able to because of family obligations or the issues brought upon them by the pandemic."

Harry S Truman College, one of City Colleges' schools located in northern Chicago, is also partnering with the Center on Education and Labor at New America to develop new strategies to re-enroll students who put their education on pause during the pandemic.

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