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Governing Magazine: Chicago Reinvents Community College

2/27/2014 12:00 AM

​Gabriel Barrington is positioning a small piece of metal onto an engine lathe in the shop room at Richard J. Daley College on Chicago’s South Side. The room is the size of an airplane hangar, but with the raw industrial trappings of a place devoted to fashioning metal into useful things. After demonstrating how the engine lathe allows him to narrow the diameter of the metal bit, Barrington explains he’s back in school to rack up manufacturing certifications and credit hours for an eventual transfer to the Illinois Institute of Technology, where he’d like to earn a bachelor’s degree in manufacturing technology.

Barrington is a City Colleges dream student. The certifications he’d like to get under his belt—welding, blueprinting and the science of measurement—could offer him a better full-time job than he had when he entered, and if he completes that bachelor’s degree, he’s all but guaranteed higher lifetime earnings.

After taking a hard look over the past several years at why its City Colleges students weren’t graduating in sufficient numbers or attracting the attention of employers, Chicago decided to make big changes. Today it’s in the midst of an overhaul that aims to get more certifications and diplomas in the hands of students like Barrington. The initiative seeks to make the two-year city college curriculum more economically relevant and ease the path to completion through direct business input on curriculum, maps for students that show the most efficient way to reach their destination and new scheduling that allows students to enter the workforce while they are still studying. The ideas aren’t necessarily new; a small number of institutions across the country have tried them. But Chicago is a seven-college system of 115,000 students, and it’s experimenting with a broad range of strategies in an ambitious effort to plug gaps in the region’s workforce needs for years to come.

To read the entire story from Governing's March 2014 issue, visit

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