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Over the years, I have been very fortunate to impact issues of global importance from my perch in Hyde Park, from the 2008 U.S. banking bailout as chair of the Bank of America board of directors to the construction of the international Giant Magellan Telescope as chair of that board. During the course of my career, I have met with presidents, partnered with Nobel Prize winners and advised captains of industry. I was asked in 2017 to take on another role, as chair of the City Colleges of Chicago board of trustees, and I was curious. Although I had held higher-education leadership positions at research universities and liberal arts colleges across the country, I had spent relatively little time thinking about our nation’s community colleges.

This is not uncommon. Despite the ubiquity of their alumni, community colleges continue to be perceived as perennial underdogs, undiscovered gems and little-known secrets. They are too often also funded at a fraction of their four-year research institution peers. Nonetheless, they are deeply enmeshed in the fabric of communities. As I recently have retired from the City Colleges board, I am compelled to share some of what I have learned.

Dr. Walter E. Massey addresses graduates and guests at City Colleges’ 2023 Commencement Ceremony.

Two-thirds of the jobs in our country require some postsecondary education, making City Colleges a critical gateway to quality, affordable and necessary higher education for more than 60,000 students every year, three-quarters of whom are Black or Latinx students. City Colleges alums are health care staff at our local hospitals, apprentices at major global companies, police officers, early child care providers and entrepreneurs. The system nurtures the diverse talent that our city needs. According to research conducted by Harvard economics professor Raj Chetty, City Colleges is in the top 10% of all public two-year colleges in helping its students achieve upward mobility.

City Colleges has become a magnet for major institutions seeking to partner. It is a more visible convener and attractive collaborator, approached by leaders of major universities, government and business.

The University of Chicago is partnering with City Colleges in a multitude of ways: on development of a data science program, offering students exposure to molecular engineering and partnering to support an expansion of health care programs and practicums on the South Side. The state of Illinois chose City Colleges to co-lead the workforce development and community awareness component of its multimillion-dollar investment in a quantum ecosystem. The members of the Chicagoland Apprenticeship Network — dozens of the most well-regarded companies across the city — seek out City Colleges students and alums for work-based learning and careers in in-demand fields. As partner to the city, the institution consistently steps up during the toughest of challenges.

Enrollment at City Colleges is rebounding to pre-COVID levels, with growth surpassing both national and state enrollment averages. Of particular note, while Black male student enrollment at public two-year colleges nationally increased 0.6% from fall 2021 to fall 2022, during the same period, Black male enrollment increased 5% at City Colleges and was up another 16% this past fall. Also close to my heart is City Colleges’ engineering pathways program, housed at Wright College. Funded by the National Science Foundation, this program has grown from a couple dozen students six years ago to more than 500 budding engineers today, more than two-thirds of whom are Black and Latinx students.

Under Chancellor Juan Salgado’s leadership, City Colleges has also shored up the institution’s financial health, overcoming a legacy structural deficit to achieve positive net assets and ending last year with the highest cash reserves since 2015. The system saved nearly $29 million by refinancing general obligation bonds this past January, supported by 100% minority-owned bond underwriting firms. The positive national reception to this bond offering was reflective of trusted leadership, strong post-pandemic enrollment gains and recent credit rating upgrades.

At the same time, City Colleges is a learning institution, committed to its own continuous improvement. City Colleges is working through plans to achieve equity in student outcomes alongside Chicago Public Schools, to scale up work-based learning opportunities and to provide a clear pathway for adults seeking to return to school, knowing the work is far from done.

As I move to my next chapter of service, I say to the new trustees: You have inherited a gift; please help steer the institution to reach its full potential. I call on our city to rally round our community colleges. Support their vision of serving as the city’s most accessible higher-education engine of socioeconomic mobility and racial equity. Support equitable funding for community colleges that serve all who seek an education. Join me in supporting City Colleges as they work to create a truly equitable Chicago economy.

 

Dr. Walter E. Massey is the Chair Emeritus of the City Colleges of Chicago Board of Trustees.

You can also read the op-ed in Crain’s Chicago Business.

 

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