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Before Stephanie Meeks even started at Olive-Harvey College on the South Side of Chicago, she had an army of extra support. She had access to tutors, a program coordinator and coaches who were ready to help her overcome obstacles, whether they were personal, financial or academic. 

And, as a first-generation college student entering college at the height of the pandemic in the fall of 2020, she needed it.

The support came by way of a Chicago nonprofit called One Million Degrees, which aims to help community college students thrive. Meeks got lucky, learning about the program from a high school guidance counselor, and being accepted at a time she crucially needed the support the program offers. 

Now, students don’t have to get lucky to have the resources Meeks had. Through a partnership between the nonprofit and the City Colleges of Chicago, if they are enrolled full-time and on track to graduate within three years, they’ll be automatically enrolled in the One Million Degrees program. 

Juan Salgado, chancellor of the City Colleges of Chicago, a system of seven community colleges, estimates that about 9,000 students will be eligible per year. He hopes the extra support will be game-changing for them on a personal level, and will help the community college system reach its goal of boosting the number of new, credential-seeking students who graduate or transfer in four years to 55 percent by 2032. 

“As an institution, we’re our city’s most accessible engine for socioeconomic mobility, and racial equity, because of the makeup of our student body,” which is predominantly Black and Latino, Salgado said during a recent panel discussion at the Arizona State University-Global Silicon Valley Summit on the future of education and work. “We have a lot to say about what kind of city we’re going to be in the future.”

Across the country, completion rates are often lower for Black and Latino students. To try to right that in Chicago, Salgado said they decided to start the automatic enrollment at predominantly Black colleges, including Olive-Harvey and Malcolm X, and will roll it out to the other five colleges in the system soon. 

A version of this program has been available to community college students in Chicago since at least 2006, if they were eligible for a Pell grant (federal financial aid for students from low-income families) or if they had graduated from a Chicago high school with a 2.0 grade point average or higher. 

But Aneesh Sohoni, CEO of One Million Degrees, said that when he asks students how they heard about the program, he often hears stories of luck.

“Why are we asking students who deserve access to these opportunities to find us?” Sohoni asked. “Instead, the burden should be on us to make sure they understand that this opportunity exists and why they should take advantage of it.”

Sameer Gadkaree, president of The Institute for College Access and Success, or TICAS, said he thinks this partnership model will succeed because of the investment in advising and supporting students, the use of shared data and the financial support to help students offset unexpected costs not covered by financial aid. 

“Those are things that we see in other programs elsewhere in the country that have an effect on graduation,” Gadkaree said. “And they speak to the need to address this under investment that we have in community college settings broadly.”

The University of Chicago’s Inclusive Economy Lab found that students who were enrolled in the One Million Degrees program were 12 percentage points more likely to enroll in college, 4 percentage points more likely to return the following year, and 8 percentage points more likely to earn a degree than students who did not participate.

Community college students often juggle family and work responsibilities, and many struggle with housing, food and transportation insecurity. 

The program comes with a $1,000 annual stipend that students can spend on expenses related to college or emergency situations that might otherwise derail them.

“Our students will drop out for far less than $1,000, in terms of unexpected expenses and emergencies,” Sohoni said. “So it’s also critical in the affordability conversation to think about what students need holistically in their life.” 

Meeks, who lived with her family throughout her time at Olive-Harvey College, had to ride the bus for 30 to 45 minutes to and from campus each day. She said she used her stipend mostly on bus fare and school supplies. 

And when she was struggling to navigate college life during the pandemic, she had the support of her One Million Degrees program coordinator and coaches who encouraged her to join clubs and the Phi Beta Kappa honor society, which helped her make friends. When Meeks came to them with personal struggles, she said it was a judgment-free environment, “like a family.” 

The program also has monthly Saturday sessions to work with the students on topics such as self-care or overcoming imposter syndrome, and how to bring these skills into every aspect of their lives.

As Meeks made the transition into college, she found herself struggling in an introductory English course. When she told her coaches at One Million Degrees, they connected her with an in-house tutor who helped her finish a particularly daunting comparative essay assignment, and supported her as she made her way through the rest of the course. 

The program also offers professional development workshops and resumé help for those job-hunting after graduation. Those who want to transfer to a four-year college can get help with that, too.

Meeks finished the course requirements for an associate degree in psychology and will graduate this Saturday, as the class of 2023’s valedictorian. She’s not sure which career path she wants to pursue. To keep her options open, she’s working toward an advanced certificate in medical assisting at Malcolm X College, another community college in the city. Eventually, she said she hopes to work either as a mental health therapist or a labor and delivery nurse. 

Meeks said she’s glad more college students will have the opportunity to have the secure foundation she felt she had during college, thanks to One Million Degrees.  With all the challenges community college students face, Meeks said, it will help “to understand they’re not alone, they’re not by themselves, and they’re able to have that support they need in order for them to get where they want to be.” 

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