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Reinventing College

Shaking up higher education with Cheryl Hyman

How a high school dropout emerged as one of the most innovative leaders in higher education.


Once in a while you meet someone whose work is so extraordinary you want to share their story so others can learn from their experience. That’s how I feel about Cheryl Hyman.

Cheryl is the chancellor of the City Colleges of Chicago, one of the largest two-year community college systems in the US. When she was appointed chancellor in 2010, she was handed a daunting task: Fix a college that was failing to educate the community it served. More than 90 percent of her students, most of them from low-income backgrounds, arrived unprepared for the rigors of college. Most of them dropped out.

Cheryl’s challenge was an extreme version of the problem facing America’s higher education system. College enrollment has increased dramatically in the last few decades, but graduation rates have not. Nationally, about 50 percent of college students complete degrees. At City Colleges of Chicago, just 7 percent were graduating.

You can listen to Cheryl explain more about the challenges she faced in this short video:

It was not the first time the odds were against Cheryl. Raised in the housing projects in the West Side of Chicago, Cheryl dealt with hardship at an early age. Her parents struggled with substance abuse. When she was 17, looking to escape the chaos of her home life, Cheryl moved out, quit high school, and got a job working at a fast food restaurant. For a time, while trying to make ends meet on her own, she was homeless.

She quickly realized that working at a fast food restaurant was not a path to better life. But a quality education would be. She went back to high school, graduated, and then eventually spent two years at the City Colleges of Chicago before transferring to the Illinois Institute of Technology, where she earned a degree in computer science.

After graduation she got her first job at ComEd, Illinois’s largest electric company, working her way up to become a corporate vice president. In 2010, she got a call from then-Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley asking her to lead the city’s network of seven community colleges and help more of the city’s youth succeed like she had. She was later reappointed by current Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Cheryl’s appointment wasn’t without controversy. She didn’t have a formal background in education and her business-minded passion for measurement often shook up long-held traditions in higher education.

Chery didn’t give up. Instead, she instituted sweeping reforms to help more students graduate. I was impressed by three critical changes she made:

  1. A focus on careers: Cheryl formed partnerships between City Colleges and industry leaders to make sure the schools were teaching students the skills they needed for jobs in Chicago area’s fastest-growing sectors, including healthcare, advanced manufacturing, and transportation and logistics. City Colleges’ partnership with industry gives students access to internships where they can get real world experience and a first pass at job openings in their fields of study.
  2. More student support: After hearing about the struggles that dropouts experience, she poured more resources into advising support so students get the assistance they need before they decide to quit. She also overhauled the college course guide and made class schedules more flexible so students could fit their coursework in with their personal lives.
  3. A catch-up plan: An easy way for City Colleges to raise graduation rates would have been to accept fewer students and choose the ones with the best academic records. Cheryl didn’t take the easy route. She wanted to offer all students, even those who lagged behind in math and writing skills, to make progress toward a degree. So she worked to streamline the system for students who needed remedial coursework. Instead of forcing them to repeat entire high school math or writing courses—a path that often led students to become discouraged and quit—she asked instructors to design remedial coursework focused on the math and writing skills needed for their majors. Nursing students with weak math skills, for example, only need to concentrate on the handful of lessons that are necessary for a nursing career.

There are many stories of the students who have benefitted from these improvements. One of them is Lidia Sanchez, who moved to Chicago from Mexico and is the first person in her family to hold a degree. It wasn’t always easy, she says, but thanks to advising support she received she was able to graduate with a culinary arts degree last month. She now works in the kitchens of two of Chicago’s top restaurants and has ambitions of managing her own restaurant someday.

One by one these individual stories of success are adding up to positive changes at City College of Chicago. The graduation rate has doubled since 2010 to 14 percent, and for the last three years the school has awarded the highest number of degrees in its history.

Much more work, of course, needs to be done. As Cheryl told me, she won’t be satisfied until her graduation rate is 100 percent. Still, the progress made by Cheryl already a reminder that change is possible in higher education.

Picking leaders like Chancellor Hyman is a big part of that change. She’s setting a fantastic example that more people need to hear about.

Now that I’ve shared it, I hope you will too.