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Illinois Higher Education and Workforce Equity Initiatives You Should Know

by Dr. Jasmine D. Collins / Mar 23, 2023

The state of Illinois faces a host of social and economic challenges. Workers are aging, labor-force participation rates are decreasing, and middle-wage jobs are disappearing, giving rise to an increasingly stratified labor market (Illinois Future of Work Task Force, 2022). Marked disparities in postsecondary educational attainment persist—especially with respect to Black, Hispanic, low-income, rural, and working adult students (IBHE, 2021). The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these long-standing inequities. For instance, recent reports show that between the fall of 2019 and the fall of 2020, community college enrollment dropped 16% for Black students, 17% for Latinx students, 13% for Asian students, and 12% for white students (Advance Illinois, 2022). This is particularly concerning as community colleges serve Black, Hispanic/Latinx, low-income, rural, and working adult students at proportionally higher rates than public four-year institutions in the state.

Given the inextricable links between educational attainment, workforce participation, community prosperity, and individual quality of life, it is imperative that these equity gaps are addressed. Around the state of Illinois, several initiatives have been put in place to do just that.

Here are four you should know about.  

Illinois Education and Career Success Network Leadership Communities 

The Illinois Education and Career Success Network (formerly known as the Illinois 60 by 25 Network) was launched in 2013. This collaboration between Advance Illinois, Education Systems Center at Northern Illinois University (EdSystems), and the Illinois Student Assistance Commission (ISAC) provides a statewide infrastructure for local initiatives that focus on increasing postsecondary attainment and career success in Illinois. Local initiatives that meet the network’s Leadership Communities criteria receive strategic, technical, financial, and professional support from the network. To date, there are 18 Leadership Communities throughout the state partnering with high schools, local businesses, and institutions of higher education to increase college readiness, provide support in the college-going process, assist with career exploration, and match skill development with local workforce needs.

Illinois Equity in Attainment Initiative  

In 2018, the Partnership for College Completion (PCC) launched the Illinois Equity in Attainment Initiative (ILEA) to “eliminate racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps by 2025 and aggressively prioritize increasing completion rates.” To date, PCC has partnered with 25 public and private two- and four-year postsecondary institutions that collectively enroll 40% of all Illinois undergraduates and 68% and 42% of all Illinois’ Latinx and Black undergraduates, respectively. Each ILEA member institution has appointed a dedicated leadership team and developed an institutional equity plan. Each plan contains strategic objectives and plans to evaluate progress toward stated objectives. PCC provides support for ILEA member institutions by way of regular meetings, needs assessments, and best-practice sharing. 

Workforce Equity Initiative 

The Workforce Equity Initiative (WEI) is a statewide grant partnership between the Illinois Community College Board (ICCB), local community colleges, and the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus. WEI is designed to “expand skills gap training for minority students in distressed communities.” The program works by providing students with support services to remove barriers to enrollment and completion in workforce training programs in “high skilled, high wage, and in-demand occupations, allowing participants the ability to improve their livelihoods and earn 30% above the living wage.” Now in its third year of funding, the WEI program includes 18 participating community colleges that serve communities with at least a 20% poverty rate, 75% free lunch participation, 20% Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Participation, and unemployment rates at or above 1.2 times the national average. To date, over 6,500 students have participated in the WEI program, with 67% of program completers finding employment.

House Bill 5464 

One of the newest state-level initiatives is House Bill 5464, signed into law by Governor Pritzker in June of 2022. Effective immediately, HB 5464 requires the state’s public universities and community colleges to “develop and implement equity plans and practices to increase the access, retention, completion, and student loan repayment rates for minority students, rural students, adult students, women, and people with disabilities who are traditionally underrepresented in education programs and activities.” HB5464 is one of three pieces of legislation aimed at addressing educational disparities in the state of Illinois, with the others being Senate Bill 3991 and House Bill 4201. OCCRL Director Lorenzo Baber is a member of the Equity Plan Advisory Committee. The implementation of HB5464 at the state level is being overseen by the Illinois Board of Higher Education (IBHE) and the Illinois Community College Board (ICCB).

The initiatives referenced above represent a collective effort among communities, schools, postsecondary institutions, research centers, policy organizations and the Illinois Legislature to address longstanding educational disparities. How and to what extent these efforts will move the needle will only become clear in time, but in this moment one thing remains clear: While other states are dismantling Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) efforts, Illinois is standing strong in its commitment to equity.

Are there other educational and workforce initiatives that we should be aware of? Let us know in the comments!

Dr. Collins is an assistant professor in the College of ACES and an OCCRL affiliate member.


Advance Illinois. (2022). The state we’re in: A look at the impact of COVID-19 on education in Illinois. 

IBHE. (2021). A thriving Illinois: Higher education paths to equity, sustainability and growth. Illinois Board of Higher Education. 

Illinois Community College Board. (n.d.). Workforce equity initiative. Retrieved February 20, 2023, from // 

Illinois Education and Career Success Network. (2023). Success network leadership communities. 

Illinois Future of Work Task Force. (2022). Future of Work in Illinois. (2021). Gov. Pritzker signs legislation to expand access to higher education. 

Partnership for College Completion. (2023). Illinois equity in attainment initiative.