Higher Learning

Home to two universities, two colleges, nine school districts within the county, two lab schools, nearly a dozen private schools and numerous preschools, it’s no wonder 24/7 Wall St.com named Bloomington-Normal the most educated metro area in Illinois.

More than 50 percent of Twin City residents have an associate degree or higher, according to the 2016 U.S. Census. Graduation rates at Bloomington School District 87 and Normal’s Unit 5 School District top 88 percent, above the state’s graduation rate.

Illinois Wesleyan University is No. 5 on Niche’s 2019 Best College in America list and No. 6 on Forbes America’s Top College list for 2018.

BestColleges.com ranked Illinois State University No. 11 in its list that looks at such performance markers as acceptance, retention, and graduation and enrollment rates. The university also ranked No. 5 on Money Magazine’s 2018 Best Colleges for Your Money list.

ISU’s lab school, University High, earned an A+ in Niche’s 2016 school and district ratings. Bloomington’s District 87 School District earned a B+ in the same list.

GreatSchools gave Unit 5 School District an overall seven out of 10 rating in 2016.

Keeping all that talent in the community and matching it to the workforce needs of local employers is one of the goals of COMPACT, a nonprofit operated by the McLean County Chamber of Commerce, in concert with BN Advantage, the county’s economic development strategy.

“We focus on workforce development solutions for McLean County,” said Andy Bender, former manager of workforce development at the Chamber.

Those solutions come through a variety of efforts including one discovered through an employer survey.

Employers revealed that many in the workforce do not have the “soft skills” needed to succeed in a job, Bender said.

COMPACT worked with Normal’s Heartland Community College which developed Essential Employability Workshops through its Continuing Education program.

Classes will start in January and include Practicing Professionalism at Work; Communicating Effectively; Using Effective Tools for Decision-Making and Goal Setting; Navigating Challenges and Stressors; and Understanding Customer Service Essentials.

“The focus is to help businesses without large training programs,” Bender said.

Another COMPACT initiative is designed to get high school students “on the right career path earlier,” Bender said.

The program links high school students with mentors from a field of their interest. The mentors help the students choose the right classes to prepare them for a career in that profession.

Three local high schools are working with Heartland Community College and Illinois State University in the effort.

COMPACT also is partnering college interns with new professionals, Bender said.

“It brings them together for professional development and social interaction,” he said. “It’s designed to show what the community has to offer to keep them here.”

Getting students interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) also is a big focus of the COMPACT effort.

One initiative encourages employers to volunteer at an assortment of STEM-based programs with “cool” activities for students, Bender said. The programs begin as young as preschool.

Another gives businesses the opportunity to team-up with educators in the classroom to give students insight into a business.

“The goal is to encourage students to explore STEM opportunities,” Bender said.

In addition to COMPACT’s efforts to help students find a successful career path and help fill the county’s workforce needs, there is the Bloomington Area Career Center, located at Bloomington High School.

The center, which draws students
from schools across the county, provides programs in a variety of fields including: automotive technology; civil engineering; cosmetology; nurse assistant; fire science; culinary arts; and computer technology and networking.

Students also have the opportunity for dual credit courses through three area community colleges, including Heartland Community College in Normal.

“The partnership between educators and employers is a pivotal piece of the McLean County Workforce System,” Bender said. “Through this all important connection, we are taking proactive measures to prepare our students for success in their careers while meeting the needs of our local employers for an effective career-ready workforce.”