Immediately before starting as HWC president, I worked with CCC on the launch of Reinvention. I was on a project team poring over data comparing student outcomes against similar (large, diverse, urban) community colleges in the country. Our outcomes did not compare favorably.
Upon starting at HWC, I interviewed dozens of people about what was working and not working at Harold Washington. I was struck by the number of anecdotes about student success. Everyone had a story about a student whose life trajectory they and/or the institution changed for the better. The anecdotes were moving and inspirational, but they did not comport with the data. I admit having felt a touch cynical. Were these people Nero, fiddling while the college burned down around them? Didn’t they see the masses of students dropping out and not completing degrees? Did one or two success stories wash away the thousands of stories of students who did not meet their goals?
I reconciled the two by concluding that while we had isolated instances of student success, we needed to do more to help the 13,000 students who come through our doors each year. The success stories served as evidence that on our best days, we could enable student success. My challenge was to bring these successes to scale. We needed to align the one-offs everyone felt good about with the data to make sure we were successfully serving thousands, and not ones and twos, of students.
This was my thinking early in my tenure as president. I did not have any student successes of my own to share. I was determined to stay focused on the data and not distracted by feel-good stories of student achievement.
In November 2011, I wrote about an international student who was struggling with a CCC policy that made it difficult for her and other international students to attend school. I worked with Kent Lusk, our Executive Director, and District Office to get the policy changed. She was able to attend HWC. A year after I posted that story, Catherine-Alice wrote me:
Hello President Laackman,
With all of the festivities this week end, I can’t help to think back on last year’s Thanksgiving. Last year around that time, I was profoundly thankful for your interest and great concern about the payment plan issue. You addressed it promptly, and you helped fight international students’ cause. Now, I worry less about financing my tuition at a community college thanks to the payment plan. Every time I apply for a scholarship, it becomes inevitable for me to think about what you did, and be thankful. I look back, and I am grateful. You have changed the lives of many students who probably don’t know it. You changed my future by helping me stay at Harold Washington and take steps closer to my goal. For that, I want to say thank you, and I think I can still say Happy Thanksgiving.
I will admit that Catherine-Alice’s note did cause the analytical ice around my heart to melt a little, but I still resolved to not be swayed by one-off stories. The data must hold sway. Then, I learned that Catherine-Alice had won the Phi Theta Kappa Coca Cola New Century Scholarship – the only winner from the state of Illinois. I wrote her a note of congratulations, and she responded with kindness of her own. After this success, Catherine-Alice went on to win the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Transfer Scholarship, awarded “to help exceptionally promising students reach their full potential through education.”
Today is graduation day for City Colleges of Chicago. We have the highest numbers of graduates in twenty years – almost 4,000. HWC will see 660 graduates this year, up over 70% from two years ago. We are starting to see our efforts bear fruit. Yet the data are not causing my heart to grow two sizes today. It is my anecdote about Catherine-Alice, and all the Catherine-Alice’s, whose lives we are privileged to be a part of. Congratulations.