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More Chicago City Colleges students to get mentoring, ‘wraparound’ support

A young woman wearing a bright purple jacket and carrying a backpack walks into Olive-Harvey College on Chicago’s South Side.

Stephanie Meeks walks into Olive-Harvey College on Chicago’s South Side. She participates in the One Million Degrees program, which provides “wraparound” support to low-income students to help them finish their degrees and build careers.

Courtesy One Million Degrees

Stephanie Meeks graduated high school in 2020 and wasn’t sure what would come next. 

Then, that summer, she got an email from her advisor at Carver Military Academy telling her about a program called One Million Degrees that would help her academically, connect her with a career coach, and give her a $1,000 stipend. 

Meeks applied and was accepted about a month later. Since then, her mentor and the staff at One Million Degrees have helped her with everything from term papers to bus fare.  

“One Million Degrees helped me grow as a person – to get myself out of my shell,” Meeks said.  

Now in her final semester at Olive-Harvey College, Meeks hopes to be a labor and delivery nurse or a marriage and family therapist and – thanks to One Million Degrees – she has a plan for how to get there.

The wraparound support provided to Meeks will now be provided to all of her peers at Olive-Harvey on the Far South Side. No application necessary. 

Under a four-year, $20 million expansion announced today, all students taking at least nine credits at Olive-Harvey will be automatically enrolled in One Million Degrees, unless they say they don’t want to participate. The goal is to reach 3,000 students across multiple City College campuses by 2026. 

“Why should it be by chance or luck that somebody finds out about these support services?” said Aneesh Sohoni, CEO of One Million Degrees. 

The nonprofit launched in 2006 to provide low-income community college students with wraparound support to help them stay in school and complete their degrees. Students are paired with a mentor, provided tutoring, and given a $1,000 annual stipend. The organization’s former CEO Paige Ponder – now a member of the Chicago Board of Education – likened it to “helicopter-parenting” in a 2016 interview with the Chicago Tribune.  

And so far, it’s worked. 

Only about a quarter of City Colleges students earn a degree in three years. But an ongoing study by the University of Inclusive Economy Lab has found that students who participated in One Million Degrees were far more likely to finish a community college program and get a job or continue pursuing a four-year degree than students who were not part of the program. Researchers will continue to study the program through the next four years as it expands.   

City Colleges of Chicago Chancellor Juan Salgado said expanding the number of students served by One Million Degrees is a key part of the community college system’s recruitment and retention efforts. This fall, the seven-campus system enrolled around 35,000 students, but only a portion are full-time.  

“We want to invest in what works,” Salgado. “We want it to work for more students – dramatically more students.” 

Sohoni said four new staff members known as program coordinators have been hired to work with Olive-Harvey’s degree-seeking students. Each coordinator works with about 65 students. The students will also be paired with a volunteer mentor or coach who can help them with everything from their course work to building their credit score to networking for their career. 

“It’s that extra human being that is assigned uniquely to you,” Salgado said. “That’s very meaningful to a young person.” 

Salgado said that kind of mentoring is not something the City Colleges can do on its own. 

“They can run around the whole city and recruit thousands and thousands of these mentors from the private sector and create the system for them to be matched with our students,” Salgado said. “That’s something that – at big public institutions like ours – would be hard to do.”

The four-year expansion effort will be funded with $5 million from City Colleges of Chicago, $5 million from the Pritzker Foundation, $1 million from One Million Degrees, and $9 million from other private philanthropy. 

Students at campuses other than Olive-Harvey can continue to apply to One Million Degrees and the roughly 900 students already participating will still have support.

Salgado said starting with Olive-Harvey is an “important statement” because the school is one of the furthest from the central business district and is a predominantly black institution. He said the leadership there is committed to the program and it’s a manageable place to start scaling the program since it is a smaller campus. 

“We oftentimes celebrate these models that work and yet fail to take them to scale,” Salgado said. 

“While there are no guarantees of success, I think we’ve positioned ourselves for success.”

Becky Vevea is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Chicago. Contact Becky at bvevea@chalkbeat.org.

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