The ‘Second City’ looks to be first in student supports

One Million Degrees, a leading provider of wrap-around supports, and City Colleges of Chicago are expanding their partnership in a big way. We talked with Aneesh Sohoni, CEO of the nonprofit, about what that means for the city’s students.

The Chicago-based One Million Degrees is one of a handful of groups nationwide that have proven to move the needle for community college students by offering them wraparound supports. The nonprofit’s approach is heavy on mentorship and social capital, and seeks to boost the economic mobility of participating students.

Leadership at City Colleges of Chicago is a believer in the model. The two-year system, which includes seven colleges and five satellite sites, is ramping up its partnership with One Million Degrees by planning to grow student participation from 900 to 3,000 students by 2026, and thousands more going forward.

We recently interviewed Aneesh Sohoni, CEO of One Million Degrees, about the group’s philosophy and its deepening relationship with City Colleges. The exchange follows.

Why did City Colleges expand their partnership with OMD?

A: City Colleges of Chicago serves many first-generation and low-income students from some of Chicago’s most resilient communities who often need individualized and multiple supports. Students may also grapple with food and housing insecurity while they are enrolled at City Colleges. We are building on what works. A key driver of the expansion is the research-proven success of the OMD model, significantly boosting community college persistence and graduation rates and preparing students for upwardly mobile careers, as well as transferring to four-year colleges and universities.

Research from the University of Chicago Inclusive Economy Lab shows students who applied to the OMD program before enrolling in college are 70% more likely to enroll, 94% more likely to persist, and 73% more likely to graduate. What is distinctive about our model—and what undergirds its success—is the holistic nature of the support we provide students. No individual component of our program is unique. It is the four core components together that make a difference. OMD students receive performance-based stipends up to $1,000 annually, the attention of a full-time program coordinator, a volunteer coach, and professional development experiences to help them bridge from education to career.

We are building on our long-term partnership with City Colleges, and proud to play an important role in supporting its commitment to equitable student outcomes. 

How did you fund the expansion? 

A: This would not be possible without the support of a public-private partnership that has raised more than $20 million for the expansion. The foresight and financial leadership of the initial funders is an endorsement of the value and sustainability of the OMD-City Colleges partnership—and best supports the program’s goal of scaling across all seven colleges with City Colleges’ support. 

What do you anticipate the impact of the expansion will be?

A: Central to our strategy is supporting thousands more students on their journey to economic mobility. The program will become an important feature of City Colleges’ student success framework, building a customized support system for students as they enter college and as they prepare for their next career step, either in a job or pursuing a four-year degree. 

The expansion means that there are more OMD staff to work at the colleges, be accessible to students, and connect students with the colleges’ and OMD’s holistic supports. We anticipate the academic and economic return for students of this partnership will be significant. Workers in Illinois with an associate degree are expected to earn $222,753 more in their lifetimes compared with those who do not earn their degree. 

The Inclusive Economy Lab at the University of Chicago will monitor our progress. We very much see this expansion as building the case for a national model and national expansion.

How have you been able to get the necessary buy-in with your partner colleges? 

A: Partnerships have been core to our growth over more than 15 years. Absolutely key to the expansion is the enthusiastic support of CCC leadership from the chancellor to the presidents of Olive-Harvey and Malcolm X to the student-facing staff and faculty. We are in service to the City Colleges, and the leadership on every campus is critical to our joint success. College leadership sees clearly how the partnership is value additive to the work they are doing enrolling, advising, and mentoring students. As a result, they are enthusiastic about strengthening and expanding the partnership, and have created the conditions for integration with their teams. 

You mentioned the cost-effectiveness of this approach. Can you share a bit about how the business model works?

A: With the help and aid of City Colleges, we raise philanthropic funding to support our work. That includes supporting onsite staff at each community college—program coordinators, who work with City Colleges staff to help students navigate their college journey. Our staff creates programs to support student development. Scholars receive performance-based stipends up to $1,000. Our OMD mentors, called “coaches,” participate on a volunteer basis with students; our mentorship costs are isolated to recruitment and support, which we anticipate will scale up through partnerships. 

We are hopeful that because the OMD program boosts college enrollment, persistence, and credits attempted, it will drive increased and sustainable tuition revenue for partner colleges. 

How might OMD expand what it does on the workforce and experiential learning fronts?

A: Central to our mission is the belief that graduating from community college accelerates upward mobility, either through immediate entry into the workforce or pursuit of a four-year degree. OMD partners with employers to create experiential career exposure opportunities for students through monthly scholar development sessions, including career panels and office tours. Corporate and employer partners serve as a source of volunteer mentors for our scholars, who play an important role in providing the professional support that is key to our model. 

OMD and City Colleges have been involved with the Chicago Apprentice Network—more than 90 companies, including Aon, Accenture, and Zurich North America—since its founding in 2017, and we currently provide personal and professional support to nearly 200 apprentices through our earn & learn program

While historically our work has focused on direct service to students in Chicago, we know that many employers and organizations across the nation are thinking through how to better connect K-12, post secondary, and the workforce. We’re in the early phases of developing an advisory service to help partners outside of Chicago do just that, focusing on continuity and experiential learning at key points of transition for students—more to come!

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