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WASHINGTON -- Five years ago, Kennedy-King College of Chicago had a relatively low graduation and transfer rate of 34 percent. But since then the college increased that rate by 50 percent, with more than half of students completing in 2011.

The college was able to achieve those gains while serving a mostly disadvantaged population. Kennedy-King sits in Chicago's Englewood neighborhood and enrolls about 11,000 students. More than 90 percent of the students are minority, first-time, full-time enrollees and three in five of the college's students receive Pell Grants. Yet the college's underrepresented minority students now have a 42 percent graduation or transfer rate -- compared to 24 percent nationally.  

Kennedy-King's rapid improvement is partially due to ambitious goals set by City Colleges of Chicago Chancellor Cheryl Hyman and Arshele Stevens, Kennedy-King's president. Both were here Wednesday for the Aspen Institute's College Excellence Program's award ceremony, where Kennedy-King received the new Rising Star institution award.  

Kennedy-King was also a 2015 Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence finalist. Florida's Santa Fe College took home the top honor.

The award is no small feat for a community college. Aspen uses a formula consisting of national performance data and information on underrepresented racial and ethnic groups at more than 1,000 community colleges to determine the finalists. They also gather labor market data and interview students and instructors to select the institutions that stand out.

“It’s about changing the culture and mind-set of the institution, then figuring out how you can help students,” Hyman said.

The Chicago system's culture evolved from being solely about student access to also focusing on success, she said. In 2010, City Colleges unveiled an initiative called Reinvention, which focuses on increasing transfer rates, helping students earn college credits with economic value and improving outcomes for students who need remediation.

“Kennedy-King has gone from poor to good,” said Josh Wyner, vice president and executive director of Aspen's College Excellence Program. “I have never seen this kind of rapid improvement.”

The college has embraced the "guided pathways" approach as one way to improve student outcomes. The approach gives students a clear outline of classes to take, when to take them and how those courses will lead to a degree.

There are plenty of colleges that offer hundreds or thousands of courses for students to pick from, and sometimes students make the wrong choice, Wyner said. But he said that doesn't happen in a guided pathways model.

That model especially helps disadvantaged students who are juggling jobs, families or other responsibilities while also attending school, said Hyman.

“They don’t have time to thumb through a catalog and piece every class together,” she said. “They need a guided, structured approach on how to complete their education and it needs to be put in a time frame for how they can do it.”

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