The Chicago Nonprofit That's Helping A Million Low-Income Students Graduate

Three families started One Million Degrees to help community college students. Now the statistics are finally changing.

David Scherer was troubled by the numbers. In 2002, roughly 100,000 students were attending one of the seven City Colleges of Chicago. Yet less than 10% were getting a degree. And those who did were taking an average of six years to do so.

That year, Scherer also grieved the loss of his business partner and friend, Daniel Kerrane, who died suddenly. Kerrane had always been an advocate of children’s causes and empowerment. As he and his wife, Rose Lizarraga, looked for a way to memorialize their friend, an idea began to crystalize: The Daniel M. Kerrane Foundation, which was founded by three families, including his own and Kerrane’s, would begin helping community college students succeed at both degree attainment and achieving greater goals? In 2005, One Million Degrees began helping its first group of students. It was spun off into a public charity in 2006.

Helping parents is helping children

"People ask, ‘Why do you believe this is a children’s cause?’ Well, half of our students are single moms with children. There is nothing more transformative than empowering an adult to then empower their family," Scherer says.

One Million Degrees is a growing, comprehensive support program. Starting with a group of 21 students in 2005, the organization worked with 150 students during the 2013-2014 school year and expects that number to grow to 215 or more in the 2014-2015 school year. Early on, the program partnered with local education leaders and researchers, helping build the program and determine what support students needed to excel in community colleges, who often have demands that typical four-year college students don’t face.

"They don’t live on campus, they live at home. They work while they’re going to school," he says. "I would say the majority have dependents."

As a result, One Million Degrees was designed to be more than just a scholarship program for low-income students. Once accepted, the student receives tuition assistance and a small stipend each semester to help defray the costs of books, child care, and other expenses. In addition, the student is assigned to a mentor who is available to answer questions, offer support, and help the student navigate the world of community college and beyond.

Students also receive training in financial literacy, professional development, and civic engagement to prepare them with skills that they need for success in business and life. Finally, those who wish to transfer to four-year universities receive support doing so.

Changing the Ratio

Since 2005, approximately 500 students have gone through the program with remarkable results. That six-year completion average has dropped to 2.5 years for One Million Degrees students. While the average graduation rate is 20% for typical community college students, it’s 70% for One Million Degrees students.

And those success stories create a ripple effect, says cofounder Michael Golden. Every student who achieves his or her goal inspires others.

"It’s one of the reasons we call this One Million Degrees. It’s not just about academic degrees and diplomas. Every student we touch and their success touches off more successes," he says.

Those students and their successes are a source of awe for Scherer. He recounts the story of one woman who was returning to school full-time while working at Best Buy at night and caring for her child, who had special needs.

"Where you choked up is that she starts to go through her day and there’s no day left to sleep. She was sleeping two to four hours a night. But she did it," he says. "I don’t understand why we expect the most out of the people with the least resources. And if we can move that needle in some small way, I feel really good about that."

Another student whom Scherer mentored started with simple goals: to pass all of his classes. Scherer and others in the One Million Degrees programs encouraged him to think bigger. This protégé is at DePaul University and in his third year of an internship at Ernst & Young.

The organization is currently undergoing expansion, although it will remain focused on the Chicago area for now. The goal is to serve more than 4,000 students per year by 2020. Scherer says that the organization is also exploring moving to other markets within the next five years.

[Image: michaeljung via Shutterstock]

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