Shaw: City Colleges' 'Reinvention' Another Misleading Talking Point

Elected officials love to launch programs with pretentious titles that imply a gravitas that's often dashed on the rocks of political reality. City Colleges' "Reinvention" is one of those.

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images

BGA President & CEO Andy Shaw writes a bi-weekly column for Crain's Chicago Business.

Elected officials love to christen and launch their government programs with pretentious titles that imply a gravitas or nobility of purpose that’s often dashed on the sharp rocks of political reality.

Governor Bruce Rauner’s “Turnaround Agenda,” for example, hasn’t turned around our dystopian Statehouse, the Chicago Housing Authority’s “Plan for Transformation” hasn’t transformed the lives of enough public housing aspirants, most downtown streets have at least 2.0 panhandlers despite City Hall’s “Plan 2.0” to alleviate homelessness, and “Reinvention” at City Colleges of Chicago has reinvented more ways to manipulate data, create false impressions and give Mayor Rahm Emanuel talking points than to provide students with a quality education.

City Colleges, according to a new Better Government Association investigation that was highlighted in Crain’s, watered down its curriculum in recent years and started awarding enough new degrees to arm the mayor with a great success story to sell around the country: A graduation rate that’s more than doubled, from 7 to 17 percent. That claim, however, turns out to be disingenuous and misleading.

Related Story: How City Colleges Creates An Illusion Of Success At The Expense Of Education

City Colleges so drastically lowered its degree and course requirements, and so aggressively altered its record-keeping and reporting procedures, that getting a sheepskin is almost as easy as walking through a few classroom doors. Administrators have awarded thousands of degrees to current and former students—in some cases several to the same student—who didn’t want, need or ask for them. We even found students who were awarded degrees they didn’t know about years after they left the system.

They’re handing students a degree of diminished value because the underlying education is diminished, and it’s increasingly inconvenient for many students to get that diminished education because the seven campuses have become ‘quasi-magnet schools’ with specialized programs. Adding insult to injury, tuition for part-time students has gone up 70 percent in recent years.

So now a single mom who works fulltime to support two kids and wants to improve her family’s fortunes may have to drive across the city to take a more expensive night class that fits her goals. No wonder enrollment has gone down 35 percent during Emanuel’s tenure.

The basic principle of community colleges—meet the short-term needs of working class students or those raising families—has been undermined by an emphasis on graduation rates and degrees, and it’s another example of the Emanuel administration’s fixation on data to create favorable impressions. You may recall earlier exposes on the questionable ways Chicago police cull and report crime statistics, and the manipulation of graduation rates at another education institution: Chicago Public Schools.

Twisting facts and trends for political purposes raises this question: How can we trust the claims of this administration when the data is suspect?

For the record, the mayor’s office and City Colleges claim their makeover reflects national standards and best practices, but they refused our requests for interviews and haven‘t disputed any of the facts in our story. So now what? City Colleges’ inspector general should be auditing our findings and issuing a report, aldermen whose wards include a City College should be calling for public hearings, and most importantly, the Emanuel administration should be considering an attitude adjustment: Less spin and more truth. And when they want to change the approach at a major institution, get buy-in from the people it affects—the folks who pay for it and have the most to lose when it’s ill-advised—instead of playing games with statistics.

That’s the kind of honest “reinvention” that’s long overdue, and it’s something every Chicago resident should be demanding from this administration.

About the Author

Andy Shaw

Andy Shaw is an award-winning Chicago journalist who spent 37 years covering local, state and national politics, business, education, and day-to-day news at the City News Bureau of Chicago, Chicago Sun-Times, NBC 5 and ABC 7, before joining BGA.