Talking across borders

Jonathan Furr, director of the NIU Office of Education System Innovation, provided an updated on state policy.
Jonathan Furr, director of the NIU Office of Education System Innovation, provided an updated on state policy during the September 2015 meeting.

Far too many students walk onto college campuses unprepared for what it takes to earn degrees.

Within six years, about half of those who enroll with high hopes will have failed to graduate and bid farewell to their dreams, some for financial reasons and many others simply because they weren’t ready.

It’s not helping them. It’s not helping society. And it’s not inevitable.

“There is a clear disconnect between the expectations of P-12 schools and the expectations of higher education. We have a dysfunctional arrangement,” says Marilyn Bellert, associate director of NIU’s Center for P-20 Engagement.

“According to ACT, a majority of high school teachers think they are doing a good job of preparing students for college. After all, their graduates who want to attend college get admitted,” she said.

However, she added, “a minority of college instructors agree that students are ready for higher education. These folks need to talk to each other. The Northern Illinois Regional P-20 Network helps to create opportunities for those tough conversations.”

Launched by NIU in June of 2014 – and among several faculty, staff and programs honored this spring by NIU’s Division of Research and Innovation Partnerships – the P-20 Network brings together nearly 50 “CEOs” for collaboration to improve college and career readiness.

The roster includes regional community college presidents, school district superintendents, state agency directors and educational organization leaders.

Goals since the start are to raise the percentage of college-ready freshmen to 75 percent and, by 2025, to raise the proportion of adults in the northern Illinois region who hold high-quality degrees and credentials to 60 percent.

NIU’s Eric Weldy and Diana Robinson participated in the P-20 Network conference.
NIU’s Eric Weldy and Diana Robinson participate in last fall’s event.

Fast-forward two years. The Regional P-20 Network has been effective not only in building trust across institutions and creating a new level of communication throughout the region’s educational institutions but also in driving action through research and sharing of best practices.

CEOs meet twice a year to review accomplishments and to redirect efforts where there is no progress; they demand results, Bellert said, and want to see substantial progress in six months.

They’re coordinating early childhood programs: NIU President Doug Baker frequently reminds the group that children’s futures are formed during the years between birth and third-grade, Bellert said.

At the workforce end of the continuum, they are working to increase dramatically the number of adult learners who return to complete bachelor’s degrees.

NIU’s Center for Governmental Studies, meanwhile, has produced 12 reports on emerging jobs and fastest-growing jobs, one for each of the community college districts in NIU’s region and one that covers the entire area.

“Our higher education institutions aren’t necessarily training people for these jobs,” Bellert said.

“Universities must prepare graduates for careers that have not yet been invented, but they need to know about what is happening in the workforce,” she added. “The next step is to get these reports integrated into academic planning.”

Key to the efforts, she added, is continued and enthusiastic participation.

“We have 90 volunteers from about 25 institutions who are serving on committees,” Bellert said. “They have a sense they’re doing some important problem-solving with people who understand what the issues are and who will work together to come up with solutions.”

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