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An Interview with Juan Salgado, Chancellor of the City Colleges of Chicago: Charting Pathways to the Middle Class

April 5, 2019

Juan Salgado, Chancellor of the City Colleges of Chicago, will be the closing keynote speaker at the May 2019 Federal Reserve System Community Development Research conference. The theme of this year’s conference is “Renewing the Promise of the Middle Class.”  Recently, Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago staff, Susan Longworth and Mike Berry met with Chancellor Salgado to discuss what the theme means to him and the 80,000 students in the City Colleges of Chicago system.

Q: What does the concept of 'middle class' mean to you?

Growing up in a working, middle class household, some things had a profound impact on my life: we owned our home or more accurately were working to own it, and I had a parent with a stable job and income. These are the things that underpin what the middle class is, and what it means to me. I can't say there wasn't worry, but worry wasn't a daily part of our lives. If you're worrying about food or shelter or whether you have a job as part of your daily life, that's not the ‘promise of the middle class,’ but I don't have an economic definition of middle class. I don't necessarily believe that homeownership is a key factor, either. I would rather define what it means to be middle class as being in a place where you can chart a course towards a sustainable future; not worry-free, but you feel control over your destiny.

Having a measure of control has profound importance for our students. Any one, or more than one of those things I mentioned, that lead to a sense of stability, may be missing for any given student right now. We have lots of students with food insecurity, others that are housing insecure, and still others that don’t have legal status in this country. Many are holding jobs to provide part of the income necessary to keep their household together. They are scratching and clawing and fighting to move out of that condition into a new one. Just by virtue of the fact that they’re enrolled with us means they’re looking to the future, and working toward stability. Students tell me all the time about where they want to head in their careers, and the opportunities they hope to have. This is their first big step along that pathway, and with the supports they get through us, which take many forms outside the classroom, will enable them to actually break through.

Q: How do your students connect to work? What are the barriers? Where are the opportunities?

If you’re really listening to students, you can eliminate barriers. Our work on apprenticeships is a great example. One of the things that presents as an asset and a challenge to our students is paid employment. Even our Star Scholars who have free tuition and books -- because they’ve earned them -- many of them work; they have to. And so work sometimes gets in the way of education. About 10 percent of our graduates get some kind of work-based learning experience and we want to get [that figure] to 50 percent so that the work is complementary to their career path and [provides] our students with a professional network. That builds confidence, and it’s also, I would say, a key part of being in the middle class is. It’s not just income or money; it’s about access to networks. We need to think about both ends of this. When we are preparing students to earn credentials, how do we get them the skills and the networks and the access points? For the apprenticeship work we’re doing, the completion rates, retention rates, and the student satisfaction rates are very high because they’re getting both academic and work experience.

Q: How do you encourage people to pursue higher education and also to recognize community college as a good option?

There needs to be a better understanding of what college is. College is not just a bachelor’s degree. [At the City Colleges of Chicago] we have stackable credentials and much flexibility. The situations of our students and prospective students vary a lot. Some are high school students, some are already in the workplace and looking to skill-up. But I think if more people better understood one, that college is expansive and there are many opportunities, and two, that you likely don’t have to spend as much as what you think you’d have to spend for a four-year degree, we’d see a lot more people enrolled. I think we also have to be clearer about pathways. The higher education system has not served people well because the pathways to living-wage jobs have not been clearly defined. That’s something that we’re working hard to address, and we know other community colleges are as well, and even four-year institutions.

At City Colleges, for instance, you can begin a path to advanced manufacturing that continues in a bachelor’s program at Southern Illinois University (SIU) Carbondale. SIU Carbondale is now going to have a presence on our campus at Daley College, so you don’t even have to leave the City College campus to enroll at SIU Carbondale and get a bachelor’s in industrial engineering. But our job is to go out and market these opportunities, and tell people: “Here is the pathway.” Often we have students who come in for a certification, who discover that they love what they’re learning and go on to get an associate and then a bachelor’s degree. Similarly, you get someone who wants to be an engineer and who decides that they really want or need to go off into the workforce and get a job. It’s a flexible system that works for a variety of circumstances. This is the new American model.

When we work with the Chicago Public Schools (CPS), what we find is this ingrained, intense bias from teachers and counselors about the four-year degree and the four-year campus experience, because that was their experience. Students listen. And yet we haven’t provided a clear alternative pathway. It’s not necessarily the cost – we’ve worked hard to control that – it’s the knowledge base, and awareness of alternatives.

Q: What are the students hopeful for? What do they perceive as opportunities?

Students are looking for alignment between the curriculum and marketplace job opportunities, and we provide that. We’re moving on this work-based learning approach because it’s another way for students to tap both education and networks. They want the transfer opportunities, so our students can actually afford a four-year degree when they want one. We’re trying to bring about an educational system in which public schools, community colleges, and four-year colleges are all working in tandem to drive affordability. For example, if you look at a student that takes some level of dual enrollment, meaning taking classes with us while still in high school, it’s saving them money. We’ve grown in dual enrollment/dual credit from 300 students eight years ago to nearly 5,000. And some of those students are graduating with associate degrees at the same time they are getting their high school diploma. The other thing we do is cap our tuition at 12 credit hours. So if you want to take 15 or 18 credits in a given semester to accelerate your learning? No additional costs. And then you want to go off to a four-year university? We’re working with you. For our Star Scholars, we have 25 partner universities who are discounting tuition and raising scholarship dollars for them. The Star Scholarship program itself is something our students look forward to from 9th grade: if you maintain a B average, and test nearly college ready, you don’t have to worry about paying for the first two years of college.

A lot of kids look ahead and see the writing on the wall and wonder -- where’s the money going to come from? That’s the environment our kids work in. So all of these things: dual enrollment, capping at 12 credit hours, these are all things that are saying to our young people “opportunity is there for you.” You can do this. You can do it now if you’re ready. You can get the scholarship if you work hard. But, let me be clear, it’s not “oh, it’s going to be free to you.” I’m not necessarily a big proponent of totally free college. I don’t think the taxpayers will support it and I also want to be sure the students commit themselves. I think we’re creating a system right now that ensures that there’s responsibility for all stakeholders. As a leader, that’s very important to me.

Q: What keeps you up at night?

How do I balance my budget? When you’re doing all the right things and your state hasn’t invested as much as in the past. When you think, we added Star Scholarships, we capped tuition at 12 credit hours, we provide all things that I’ve described, and we did it during the largest disinvestment in education in our state [during the Illinois budget impasse]. The four-year [universities] are catching up [from the impasse] -- they need to catch up because our students go to those universities and so I don’t want to create a conversation of us vs. them -- but I think there does need to be further thought given to what is the equitable distribution of the additive dollars that are being put in. And what is the return on investment for first generation children and their families to go to college? That conversation is not happening. And part of it is that the middle class is now feeling unstable. The working middle class is being thought of less in the overall scheme. I don’t want be divisive. But this is real.

(We need to) talk about it in the context of [economic] mobility. Twenty seven percent of our students move up two income quintiles in our state. The Raj Chetty study tracks this [on the NYT website]1. You can look at what is high mobility: 2.7 percent of our students go from the very bottom to the very top. The challenge is reorienting the thinking to [focus on] the institutions that have a lot of students at the bottom [of the income scale] and not just look at how many students graduate, but whether they move along the mobility pathway? And some students, because of how the marketplace works, may not actually complete [their degree] but they have enough [training] to move up. We have a program with People’s Gas and the Utility Workers Union of America that prepares students, who are veterans, to become gas utility workers. We’ve graduated 500 people already and they’re doing well.

I think -- and this is the irony of it all -- the very space we’re in causes us to be creative and efficient, causes us to want to operationalize and scale things faster than others. And we have an advantage because we are in a city that is growing with vibrant market opportunities. That differentiates us. We need to get the message out there about the linkage to economic opportunity. We have to tell students they’re going to get a job. The best way to get a job is to have employers actually hiring before they leave the institution. Then it’s very real.

Register now for Renewing the Promise of the Middle Class


The views expressed in this post are our own and do not reflect those of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago or the Federal Reserve System.


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