This story was published with Crain's Chicago Business.
A Southwest Side City Colleges campus artificially doubled its graduation rate by awarding nearly 300 diplomas to aspiring electricians as part of an unapproved program loaded with ineligible students, records show.
A scathing 246-page confidential report from City College’s inspector general, John Gasiorowski, recommended an immediate halt to the troubled apprenticeship program at Richard J. Daley College, which he charged was also used as the basis to seek hundreds of thousands of dollars in state tuition reimbursements for courses offered for free.
The report was delivered to City Colleges administrators in February, but there is no evidence the program has slowed in any way since then.
The report, never released to the public in full, was obtained by the Better Government Association.
Other internal documents obtained by the BGA revealed the official Daley graduation rate typically reported to federal authorities stands at 26 percent for 2017, a number greatly inflated by graduates of the apprenticeship program. Without counting them, the official graduation rate at the school would plunge to 12 percent.
It is yet another example of how the City Colleges of Chicago administration under Mayor Rahm Emanuel has manipulated rules to create an illusion of meteoric success at the seven-campus system of taxpayer-funded community colleges.
Emanuel has frequently boasted of that success in appearances around the nation, portraying reforms he championed at City Colleges as a remarkable turnaround.
A recent BGA investigation revealed that turnaround hinges largely on watered-down curriculums, statistical sleight of hand and thousands of degree awards to current and former students who never requested them. City Colleges called the BGA report “unfortunate” and said it created a false impression.
But in his report on Daley College, Gasiorowski condemned actions that appear a microcosm of the BGA findings. His review of an apprenticeship program at the school for electricians concluded that certificates awarded through the program were invalid.
Gasiorowski described changes to the program under the Emanuel administration as “a shoddily designed effort to siphon credit-hour reimbursement and to a lesser extent academic completions, from the instruction.”
In his report, Gasiorowski condemned a total lack of oversight, “wholly inadequate” record keeping and a striking disregard for state and federal regulation of academic programs.
Many of the problems appeared to stem from a public-private partnership in which City Colleges sought to piggyback on a decades-old, well-regarded apprenticeship program operated by industry labor unions, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA).
Neither City Colleges Chancellor Juan Salgado nor Emanuel would agree to an interview about Gasiorowski’s findings.
Salgado, however, did issue a written statement in response to BGA questions in which he acknowledged “significant failures” and made clear the problems predated his tenure as chancellor. Salgado replaced Cheryl Hyman, who resigned last year following a faculty vote of no confidence in her leadership.
“The argument that working with IBEW is simply to improve graduation rates or revenue is narrow-minded and wrong,” Salgado said in his written response. “While those interests may have existed among some college administrators in the past, it is not my perspective as Chancellor.”
Salgado said Jose Aybar, the Daley College president responsible for the certificate program, resigned and the system’s board plans to consider a revamp of the apprenticeship program in December.
Salgado replaced Hyman, who beginning in 2010 presided over a controversial overhaul of the entire college system dubbed Reinvention. Under Reinvention, the seven campuses were transformed into quasi magnet schools with a specific academic focus aimed toward building a vocational work force. Tuition was hiked significantly, and enrollment steadily declined to a 25-year low this year.
But even as the student population was falling, the volume of credentials being awarded soared. Under Hyman, curriculum requirements were reduced for most associate degrees, hundreds of students were steered into easier programs, and administrators began scouring student data looking for current and former students who might qualify for degrees retroactively.
Related Investigation: How City Colleges Creates An Illusion Of Success At The Expense Of Education
The resulting boom in degree awards was seized on by Emanuel, who boasted frequently in public appearances across the nation that under him degree completions and graduation rates had jumped dramatically.
Helping build those numbers was a significant change to a journeyman electrician program offered by the IBEW-NECA Technical Institute. In operation for more than a century, the full-time apprenticeship program includes a combination of classroom instruction and on-the-job apprenticeship training.
In 2003, the program began offering students associate degrees through a public-private partnership with Daley College. That iteration never took off because students were also required to take several general education courses unrelated to their trade.
But at the same time pressure was growing to improve numbers under Reinvention. Daley College in 2013 began awarding IBEW students basic and advanced certificates that did not require any additional classes.
That same year, City Colleges authorized the school to confer those certificates automatically, meaning IBEW students would get an award for completion of the program whether they wanted it or not.
Through 2016, records show, 290 IBEW students had received basic and advanced certificates that count toward Daley College’s graduation rates.
Salgado acknowledged the significant effect the IBEW certificates had on the graduation rate in his written responses to the BGA.
“The IBEW degrees and certificates did contribute to the Daley College graduation rate,” he said, “though it has still increased (from 8 percent in FY09 to 12% in FY17), excluding IBEW credentials.”
What Salgado didn’t mention in his response is that IBEW credentials accounted for more than half of all the Daley graduates in the 2017 graduation rate. Daley College’s official graduation rate, including IBEW credentials, was 25.9 percent in 2017, internal records show.
Gasiorowski questioned the validity of all the IBEW related certificates, concluding the curriculum for the programs lacked proper approval from City Colleges’ board.
Gasiorowski’s investigation also found shoddy record keeping pervaded the program, that curriculum was changed without the required state approval and that Daley College exerted no control over who was teaching the IBEW courses.
“Daley College exerts absolutely no supervision or evaluation over the IBEW programs instructors,” the report states. “This further demonstrates that Daley College issues basic and advanced certificates to students in the IBEW programs whose education the college played essentially no role in.”
“They can earn basic and advanced certificates without ever setting foot on the…campuses,” he concluded.
The report also found that the sloppy record keeping led to students credited with taking courses they did not take, missing grades, and a “lack of direct and continuous control over the IBEW program and the numerous problematic enrollment and record-keeping issues.”
Gasiorowski’s team detailed how dozens of students were allowed to remain in classes despite being disqualified because of unpaid debts or academic suspension.
“The OIG found that during the period of the Summer 2014 term through the Spring 2016 term, at least 60 students participated in the IBEW program while not officially enrolled in the City Colleges of Chicago,” the report states.
Perhaps the most striking finding by the IG centered on the inappropriate state tuition reimbursements.
Michael Mutz, a former City Colleges vice chancellor, flatly called the program a fraud in a Nov. 11 email to Salgado which Mutz also copied to the BGA.
In the email, Mutz claimed that he had personally blown the whistle “on the IBEW fiasco and the fraudulent and protracted activities” at Daley College and questioned whether he was laid off last summer in retaliation.
Mutz declined to be interviewed for this report. He is married to Mara Georges, the top city lawyer under former Mayor Richard Daley who launched the Reinvention program near the end of his tenure at City Hall.
In his report, Gasiorowski raised questions about why City Colleges for years applied for state grants to which it was not entitled because IBEW students were not charged tuition for the courses.
“There is a great risk that the City Colleges of Chicago wrongfully claims credit-hour reimbursement for IBEW programs,” the report concludes.
In all, the IG report documents that college administrators filed for state grants from the program totaling 41,547.5 credit hours between 2012 and 2016. City Colleges acknowledged receiving $631,516 in tuition reimbursements from the state for the apprenticeship program that it has yet to refund.
“City Colleges is not claiming reimbursement for this program in the future,” Salgado said in his written responses. “City Colleges is in discussions with ICCB regarding past reimbursements.”
The Gasiorowski investigation also found that Daley College was filing inappropriately for federal Title IV tuition aid on behalf of students who don’t pay tuition.
“Despite the fact the IBEW students are not charged tuition and the IBEW program is not eligible for the Title IV funds, there were instances where the City Colleges of Chicago awarded students Title IV grant money to cover the students’ tuition,” the report said. “Likewise, the City Colleges of Chicago received Illinois grant money to cover students’ tuition that was never owed in the first place.”
“Moreover, the failure to charge these students tuition even led to the perverse result in which CCC paid some IBEW students who dropped out of IBEW-NECA Technical Institute courses the amount that their CCC tuition would have been if they paid that tuition in the first place,” the report says.
Aybar, the former Daley College president who presided over the controversial changes, could not be reached for comment.
But in an interview with IG investigators, Aybar said he was unaware that City Colleges was filing for ineligible tuition grants and defended the changes to the program as a way to improve official graduation rates.
Aybar told investigators that the large number of IBEW program students were “essentially deadweight” to Daley’s completion numbers prior to creation of the certificate program under Reinvention.
John Donahue, the director of the IBEW-NECA Technical Institute, took issue with that assessment.
“I can understand Dr. Aybar’s frustration with his graduation rates, unfortunately his choice of words was disrespectful to our students,” he said. “Our program has value and creates jobs, and our students graduate as journeymen electricians whether or not they have a certificate or a degree from Daley College.”