Community Development

Expanding Latino Potential Through Community Colleges

August 28, 2018  • Juan Salgado

This is the fourth post in a series following the 2018 America’s Future Summit: Unlocking Potential, Advancing Prosperity Juan Salgado, Chancellor of City Colleges of Chicago, spoke at the event on a panel titled A Workforce that Works: Skills, Jobs, and Mobility. You can view the program book from the event, which includes the day’s agenda and speaker bios, and watch the event recording. A white paper exploring various challenges and solutions discussed during the summit will be released later this year.

Everyone in our country – no matter where they started in life – deserves the chance to contribute their talents to the economy and their community, deserves the opportunity to earn an income that supports a family, deserves to save and build wealth.

Now more than ever, the key to realizing our abundant potential is a post-secondary education. And it is incumbent upon us – those of us who are leaders in higher education – to ensure our students are set on a path not only to a degree, but to build wealth.

While college credentials have real economic value, they increasingly come with a daunting cost that saddles students with debt for decades. Earning an associate degree, for instance, equates to an additional $400,000 in earnings over a lifetime compared to earning a high school diploma. A bachelor’s degree equates to nearly $1 million more over a lifetime. At the same time, the average college student earning a bachelor’s degree accumulates about $30,000 in debt, while their parents take on another $33,000 in federal loans.

Research shows that student loan debt is crowding out young people’s ability to own homes, a key mechanism of wealth building. The share of new homeowners under the age of 30 declined 14 percentage points between 2001 and 2015.

To ultimately create a more equal society, a society that offers a promise of upward mobility to people across the economic and ethnic spectrum, we must ensure everyone in our country can access a quality, affordable college education.

As chancellor of one of the largest community college systems in the nation, I know my institution, City Colleges of Chicago, and the 1,000 other community colleges in the US have a crucial role to play here. Community colleges are uniquely positioned to provide a path to college credentials and, more importantly, pathways to wealth. With a semester cost that is half or less of a four-year university, starting at a community college can significantly lower a students’ overall college debt load.

Through their relationships with employers, community colleges can offer students employment and work-based learning opportunities. And with small classes and support systems, community colleges can guide students to needed academic, career and financial information.

Community colleges’ potential for impact is considerable, and outsized among students of color. Community college students make up 41 percent of US undergraduates, but they are home to an even greater percentage of students of color. 56 percent of Native American undergraduates attend community college, as do 52 percent of Hispanic undergraduates and 43 percent of Black undergraduates. More than a third (36 percent) of community college students are first-generation college students, according to the American Association of Community Colleges.

In Chicago, our community college system has developed strategies to reduce our students’ debt load, help them build wealth, and realize the full scope of their ambitions and potential.

We are working to lower the cost of college by meeting students where they are at and rewarding them for their hard work in high school. City Colleges and our K-12 partner, the Chicago Public Schools, have increased the number of Chicago high school students pursuing college credit for free more than tenfold – from 300 to nearly 5,000 annually. In fact, this spring, more than 300 Chicago public high school students graduated with more than a semester’s worth of college credit, saving time and money on their degree.

Through the Star Scholarship that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel launched in 2015, Chicago public high school students who have worked hard in high school earn free tuition and books and earn their associate degree debt-free. More than two-thirds of these Star Scholars are Latinx students. Through our relationships with four-year universities, Star Scholars have been offered $3 million in additional scholarships to continue on for their bachelor’s degrees.

By partnering with leading companies in their field, like Aon and Accenture, to offer apprenticeships and other work-based learning opportunities, our students gain critical exposure to employers. And because some of these opportunities provide a salary and benefits, students don’t have to choose between earning a living and getting an education.

We are looking to give all students the option to take a path City Colleges graduate Sam Villalobos took — a path that builds wealth.

At just 21 years old, when his former high school classmates are juniors in college, Sam is a senior investment operations analyst at Northern Trust Bank in downtown Chicago. He has worked at the bank full-time for nearly 2 years because of a connection he made through the Year Up workforce development program partnered with City Colleges. He did this while earning his associate degree for free as a Chicago Star Scholar. Sam has a college credential, experience with an employer, and is already building wealth, and will continue studying at a four-year college this fall.

All students deserve an opportunity like Sam had. That’s why I recently announced a goal to ensure at least half of City Colleges graduates participate in work-based learning opportunities.

Work-based learning, combined with scholarships, good information and support, will allow us to remove barriers and place our students on pathways to degrees and pathways to wealth, and offer them the true freedom that is the promise of a college education.

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