Growing a Stronger Community From High School Through Career Placement

This university is investing in its surrounding community with a comprehensive program that supports and enriches underrepresented students from dual-enrollment courses in high schools to holistic programs and scholarships in college to career placement in positions with sustainable wages upon graduation.

Illinois public universities and colleges have been experiencing a 26% decline in enrollment at the same time that about two-thirds of all jobs in the U.S. require postsecondary education. These COVID-related findings from Georgetown University and the Illinois Board of Education’s 2018 Annual Report, respectively, pointed to a trend that disproportionately affects members of the Black and Latinx communities. Black student college enrollment has declined 37% in Illinois since 2013, according to the Illinois Board of Higher Education (IBHE) Presentation to Illinois Senate Education Appropriations Subcommittee on March 8, 2023.

Chicago State University (CSU) realized its own enrollment, retention, and graduation numbers were down and reenvisioned its strategic plan with the support of leaders in Chicago and Illinois to target individuals in underrepresented groups, particularly in the Black communities, through a five-year plan. The resulting initiative was CSU’s Cougar Commitment, a student-centered partnership with students, families, and communities aimed at dismantling the barriers to education equity for members of underrepresented groups and closing the wealth gaps between minority and majority communities.

To increase CSU’s enrollment, retention, and graduation rates, Cougar Commitment begins its outreach to students in middle and high schools, supports them through their degree journey at CSU, and shores up their career plans by aligning their experiences and skills with employment opportunities and sustainable wages upon graduation. This comprehensive initiative engages the entire campus community and leverages staff expertise and existing programs. It also requires a significant amount of coordination and resources to bring all university offices and staff together to ensure students are prepared for success beyond graduation. Cougar Commitment’s suite of data-driven academic programs, well-being supports, and scholarships are demonstrated in the following four distinct pillars:

  • Pillar 1 - Pre-College: This pillar focuses on assisting students with getting into CSU and encouraging them to recognize that pursuing and earning a degree remains the best option for impacting their lives in a positive way. CSU achieves the goals of this pillar through dual-enrollment courses for juniors and seniors at high schools, middle school programs, summer camps, adopt-a-school programs, and financial literacy informational sessions. Through these efforts, CSU nourishes relationships with local families and asserts itself as a positive influence in the community.
  • Pillar 2 - Access and Enrollment: This pillar seeks to eliminate barriers to access to higher education by removing financial obstacles, offering test-optional admission, and reviewing and updating policies. Cougar Commitment’s Rise Academy embodies the goals of this pillar by providing freshmen with scholarships; free tuition for their first year; free textbooks; no fees; a four-year personal laptop; and a dedicated advisor, workshops, and resources. A requirement of being in the Rise Academy is participating in a five-week summer program. Transfer and continuing education students can participate in Cougar Commitment through clear transfer pathways and benefit from the Cougar Return debt forgiveness program and micro grants.
  • Pillar 3 - Retention and Persistence: This pillar demonstrates CSU’s commitment to providing holistic support services for students’ academic and personal success. They not only receive tutoring in and out of the classroom, mentoring, intensive advising, flexible scheduling, and credit hour completion, but they also can benefit from CSU’s food pantry, transportation, and health and wellness services.
  • Pillar 4 - Career Placement and Readiness: This pillar addresses the question of how CSU is supporting matriculated students beyond resume writing and interview preparation. Through Cougar Commitment, CSU connects students to industry partners and coaches students on how to network, how to market their skills, and how to feel comfortable in corporate or professional environments. In addition, the students are offered experiential learning opportunities with industry partners, internships, and employment opportunities to prepare them for their careers.

As the only U.S. Department of Education-designated, four-year predominantly Black institution in Illinois, CSU decided to take a leadership role in reversing the disturbing postsecondary trends affecting this community. Its Cougar Commitment stands as a powerful framework for educating scholars who lead in their professions, allowing generations of families to invest in themselves and their neighborhoods and overcome barriers to their growth and success.

The Methodology

CSU began conversations around its students’ success when Zaldwaynaka “Z” Scott, Esq., became university president in 2018. A review of its enrollment, retention, graduation, and access data revealed a decline in college-going students and a list of barriers impacting student behavior. Because CSU is located on the far south side of Chicago with schools experiencing this downturn, CSU decided to address the access issue. In reviewing the CSU strategic plan and the challenges the university was facing with student success, Scott convened a Student Success Task Force led by the provost. The task force consisted of members of the faculty, enrollment management, and the various programs that work closely with students, allowing for a thorough understanding of the student services being offered and what was effective and ineffective. They discovered that there was an excessive duplication of services in different offices. Multiple programs were attempting to tackle the same issue but on smaller scales with limited assessment on the effectiveness of each program. The task force learned that there were gaps in services for certain groups of students as well.

Armed with this information, the Student Success Task Force was broken up into groups that focused on a particular Cougar Commitment pillar and identified initiatives under that pillar that needed additional support, personnel, and infrastructure to succeed. For each pillar, clear goals and an infrastructure using existing student success initiatives were established. For example, under the first pillar, CSU’s Academic Affairs Committee and Senate examined its existing internal policies and identified potential barriers to access such as admission policies relating to ACT and SAT scores and developmental education. In addition, CSU hired a full-time coordinator who collaborated with area high schools to build Cougar Commitment’s dual-enrollment program.

Scott’s academic and administrative teams also visited Georgia State University in Atlanta and Wayne State University in Detroit, both of which had seen noteworthy improvements in their enrollment, retention, graduation rates. Scott and her team studied these universities’ approaches and combined their recommendations and data with CSU’s findings to serve as the foundation for Cougar Commitment. CSU included an action plan as part of its strategic plan being written at that time for improving enrollment, retention, and graduation through Cougar Commitment and programs like the Rise Academy. The student success initiative launched in the fall 2020 semester.

The Student Success Task force continues working on advancing the mission of Cougar Commitment to this day. It examines issues, evaluates potential barriers to student success, and determines ways to address them. For example, the task force is working on the early warning system to make it more effective and streamlined so all students who receive an early alert reap the same benefits. Current funding and new gifts from corporate and foundation partners have been reallocated to financially support Cougar Commitment. Among them are The Joyce Foundation, spearheaded by the Chicago State Foundation, CSU’s chief fundraising partner.

The Impact

Cougar Commitment’s overall success is measured by enrollment, retention, and graduation rates. Since its implementation, CSU has seen increases in dual enrollment at Tier 1 high schools, the retention rate to 63% in the fall 2022 semester from 50% in the fall 2020 semester, the graduation rate by 9%, learning assistants across all colleges, and the number of paid internships and “strong first jobs” with industry partners. The next step for Cougar Commitment is continuous evaluation and revisions of the measures to identify which of the pillar’s components have had the biggest impact on the program’s success.

Key Takeaways

For higher education institutions interested in creating a program similar to Cougar Commitment, they should examine their programming. CSU wanted to implement a campuswide framework for student success. However, to do so, it needed to identify, evaluate, and coordinate programs across the various academic and student success offices to avoid redundancies and use university resources more effectively and efficiently.

In addition, institutions should review their student data. CSU continues to grapple with several ongoing challenges, including providing social-emotional and mental health support for students, disaggregating student data for more personalized supports, building student confidence and a sense of agency for internships, and helping students interpret skills learned at CSU and creating skill-based learning opportunities.

Being intentional with each step will allow an institution to create and grow a program akin to Cougar Commitment.