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Illinois Issues: State Hopes To Lure Adults Back To College

Courtesy of Ricca Louissaint

Illinois needs more college-educated workers and can't meet that goal with traditional students. Here's what some schools are doing to attract adult learners.

Ricca Louissaint spent 10 years in college without earning a degree. It wasn’t that she didn’t take college seriously. Like many moms, she just couldn’t untangle herself from more urgent obligations.


“Life happens, and you just function and do and provide,” the South Holland resident says. “Sometimes you’re not on the list anymore. And I really wasn’t on the list anymore.”


As mom to three boys — two of whom are on the autism spectrum — Louissaint’s list was lengthy: “My children and (their) special needs, and my spouse, and the cat, and the dog, and three fish, and the mortgage, the grass, whatever,” she says.


So she attended South Suburban College in South Holland only part-time. Dabbling in art, photography and humanities courses, she regarded class time as her “little vacay” from the stresses of home life. “Although I did have a dream to be a college graduate. And most people who knew me had no idea I wasn’t.”


Her chance came accidentally in 2011, when she was helping her oldest son, Gabe, enroll as a freshman at South Suburban. Noticing flyers for a new “dual degree” program, Louissaint asked if her son was eligible. The counselor told her that Gabe didn’t yet qualify — students need 12 hours of credit to apply — but mentioned that Louissaint actually did.


Next thing she knew, she was in the express lane of higher education. Louissaint was assigned a “transfer specialist,” who helped her choose classes to fill the gaps in her academic record. Within a year, she had earned an associate’s degree.


Her grades in the dual degree program gave her automatic entrance to Governors State University, where her credits counted and she earned a full-tuition Honors scholarship. By December 2014, she had earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology. 


And she’s not done. At age 46, she’s studying for the LSAT exam and will attend law school.  


For Louissaint, the dual degree program changed her life. But for the state of Illinois, her story amounts to one down, thousands more to go. Under the Illinois Public Agenda for College and Career Success initiative that began in 2009, the General Assembly and the Illinois Board of Higher Education (IBHE) set a goal to have 60 percent of the state’s workforce holding some form of college degree by the year 2025. Just 43 percent of those in Illinois’ workforce currently hold a degree. Although that’s slightly better than the national average, it’s not where the state needs to be for economic health.


It’s also not the kind of statistic that moves quickly. In fact, James Applegate, director of IBHE, says Illinois has no hope of achieving that goal using conventional methods.


“If Illinois was the best state at graduating students from high school, if we were the best state at getting them immediately to college, if we were the best state at graduating them from college — just focusing on traditional students, we couldn’t get to 60 percent,” he says. “There aren’t enough of them.”


So IBHE is focusing on the thousands of Illinois adults who have never been to college, or who have earned credits but stopped short of getting a degree. 


“What we have is this massive market of adults already out there. One in five of them already have some college credits,” Applegate says. “So if we want to get to this 60 percent by 2025 goal, which is kind of the North Star of our plan, we can’t get there without getting those adults back.”


The goal isn’t about giving more Illinois adults a lovely certificate to hang on the wall; it’s about attracting and keeping businesses in the state. A recent analysis by ReadyNation found that 150,000 jobs are standing open in Illinois because of a lack of qualified candidates, and Applegate cites studies suggesting that, over the next five to 10 years, more than two-thirds of available jobs will require college credentials. He says a better-educated workforce could help the state’s financial crisis.


“If we were at 60 percent today … if you look at the salaries of two- and four-year-degree-holders in Illinois versus those who don’t, it would mean roughly $900 million tax revenue to the state of Illinois every year. Every year!” Applegate says. “That would go a long way toward getting us out of this budget mess.”


Furthermore, a college-educated workforce translates into cost-savings on big-ticket items like criminal justice, public assistance, unemployment benefits and Medicaid, Applegate says, since college graduates tend to smoke less than people with no post-secondary education.


Some schools are more receptive to adult learners than others. According to a 2014 U.S. Department of Education report, more than half the students at Governors State and Chicago State University were 25 or older, and more than 20 percent were at least 40 years of age.Northeastern Illinois University and University of Illinois at Springfield also had significant numbers of adult students. By contrast, at the University of Illinois’ flagship campus at Urbana-Champaign, a scant 2 percent of students were 25 or older. The school has more than 1,400 Registered Student Organizations, but none specifically targeting adults.


Dana Papanikolaou earned her associates degree and was halfway through her junior year of college when chronic health problems derailed her academic career. Eventually, she decided the best way to continue her education would be online, and she spent months looking for a reputable university offering a bachelor’s degree in English. It turned out there weren’t many schools that met her criteria. University of Illinois’ Springfield was the only one out of the schools three campuses that did.


Credit Courtesy of Dana Papanikolaou
Dana Papanikolaou wears the gold stole denoting her position as marshal of the English graduates at UIS commencement ceremonies.

Papanikolaou, who’s 30, lives in a northern suburban of Milwaukee, and she completed all her coursework from home. The trickiest part was a required communications class, which included public speaking.


“Because it was an online course, and not a course on campus, you had to videotape yourself giving the speech, and find a way in this video to prove that you’re speaking in front of a certain amount of people,” she says. “So I wrote the speeches, and I went over to the corner tavern, and I stood there and ... gave the speeches.”


Nervous and mindful of her audience’s mood, Papanikolaou’s first speech was on the pleasures of living in Wisconsin. It focused on popular festivals and sports teams. But that level of frivolity wasn’t typical of her online education. Class discussions happened through Blackboard,where students were required to post questions and answers. There was no back row in which to hide; participation was required. This format gives students time to research their answers and fosters deeper discussions, Papanikolaou says.


UIS has a long history of catering to adult learners. Originally called Sangamon State University, it was one of a few dozen “senior universities” established in the late 1960s and early 1970s, mainly to serve community college transfer students. Acknowledging that the SSU/UIS student population was, by definition, older than “traditional” students and probably juggling jobs and families, it launched its first online course in 1997, and has earned a national reputation as an online educational leader.


As of 2013, about 30 percent of the approximately 3,000 UIS students are enrolled only in online courses. The typical age is 34: most are women, and most begin with about 60 hours of credit earned at community college, according to Vickie Cook, director of the Center for Online Learning, Research and Service at UIS. Ninety percent have full-time jobs and families, and many live so far away, they will never even know that their alma mater is a small campus surrounded by cornfields.


“We have online learners in 47 states and seven countries right now,” Cook says “At graduation last year, our farthest graduate traveled from South Africa.”


Governors State University, where Louissaint earned her bachelor’s degree, has specialized in educating adult learners since it was founded in 1969. It still leads the state’s public universities in its percentage of adult learners, with 64 percent of its approximately 3,100 students older than 25, and 23 percent older than 40. Only 14 percent take classes exclusively online. 


The campus itself is designed to accommodate grownups with busy lives and full-time jobs. There’s a large daycare center located just far enough from classrooms so that parents can drop off their children, then focus on getting to class.


But when Elaine Maimon, president of GSU, is asked what her school does to attract and retain adult learners, she doesn’t mention the award-winning daycare center or the cafeteria Starbucks. Instead, the first thing she mentions is GSU’s unique attitude toward whatever an adult learner has been doing during his or her years outside of a classroom.


“First of all, adults need to understand that they know things. We are going to respect the experiences that they have achieved through their lives that may not have been in the classroom, but that are extremely valuable in terms of their further education,” she says. “They’re not sure that their experiences are particularly relevant to this new environment, which is the academic environment. But we have to help them make connections between what they already know, what they have experienced and opening up new horizons for them.”


That means not only boosting their confidence about their ability to master the work ahead, but also through a “prior learning assessment” through which students receive credits by participating in a formal portfolio process and taking nationally standardized exams. “Military credits, things like that,” Jim Howley, director of student academic affairs, says of the experiences that can count toward a student’s degree. “Governors State has done that essentially since its inception.” Getting over the organizational hump of lining up those credits, seeing where they’ve been and what they’ve already learned, helps students figure out where they can go.


To help adult learners tackle new course work, GSU tries to remove logistical barriers, scheduling classes and other campus functions to accommodate the lifestyles of grown folks with jobs and families. In the center of campus, there’s a large food court where everyone eats, so that students can bump into professors, staff, even the school president, over a meal — including an evening meal.


“Our offices are open till seven or eight in the evenings, because that’s when students who are adults can be with us,” Howley says. “And a lot of us eat meals down there in the evening as well so that we can be with the students.”


Online courses help make schedules flexible, and 44 percent of GSU students take a mixture of on-campus, online and hybrid courses, which are online courses that have on-campus meetings, according to a 2013 U.S. Department of Education report. Maimon says that these options “reduce what I call the tyranny of the calendar, the clock and the car.” But particularly for older students, who may not be as comfortable with technology as the younger generation, some personal interaction with professors and other students helps, especially if the other students are also older.


Credit Courtesy of Ricca Louissaint
Louissaint created her own "fan club" by distributing fans with a photo of her face to her family, so that she could spot them in the crowd at the GSU graduation.

Ricca Louissaint, who spent a decade with youngsters at a community college before the dual degree program introduced her to Governors State, felt that she had found her tribe the first day she came to campus. “When I walked in here as a junior… I felt like it was my own reflection. They looked like me. We had a respect and an understanding,” she says.


“It doesn’t mean that there aren’t younger bright students who are driven and focused, but they do not have the life experience to appreciate and cherish education. And as we all know, education is the currency to the American dream,” Louissant says. “We’re trying to achieve the American Dream. We’ve struggled. We’ve done without. We’re trying to improve our circumstances, and we’re driven in a completely different way. And I looked into the eyes of students and saw that reflected, without a single word. We were like, ‘Let’s get it!’ ”


Louissaint, though, realizes that in the real world, she will be competing with — and working with — people half her age. To test her skills, she applied for and won an internship with The Washington Center. She spent her last semester of school in the nation’s capital as an intern with a lobbying law firm.


“They thrust me into the very environment that I didn’t want to be in – average age of the students was 21, you know, privileged, from the best universities in the country,” she says. “And there I was like, ‘What am I doing here? I don’t know if I belong.’ ”


She didn’t just belong; she thrived. When the four-month internship was over, she was one of two students chosen by The Washington Center faculty and staff to deliver the commencement address at her cohort’s class graduation.


“My internship helped me see that my success here wasn’t a fluke,” Louissaint says, “because I kind of thought it was.”


She credits GSU’s dual degree program with giving her the push she needed. Instead of taking her customary six or nine hours, and dropping a class if it became inconvenient, the program required her to carry a full load of classes and graduate within two years. Her entire family struggled with the adjustment, and Louissaint fought it till the end, but she admits: "It lit a fire under my behind.”


She now realizes that she would likely still be floating through community college, with no direction, no degree. “Truth be told, the statistics show that the longer you are in school, the more likely it is that you will not complete a degree,” she says.


GSU’s program, which has won national education awards, includes 17 community college partners and a $1 million endowment to provide scholarships. But as successful as the dual degree program is, it has yet to spread beyond Chicagoland. 

After a long career in newspapers (Dallas Observer, The Dallas Morning News, Anchorage Daily News, Illinois Times), Dusty returned to school to get a master's degree in multimedia journalism. She began work as Education Desk reporter at NPR Illinois in September 2014.
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