Better Makers: One Million Degrees Keeps Community College Students on a Path to Academic and Career Success

5th Annual Philanthropy Awards: One Million Degrees

Tiffany Spraggins’ academic journey wasn’t always smooth, but eventually it led the mother of three to complete a degree at Wilbur Wright College in Chicago and to get a job as a software engineering analyst at Accenture.

Spraggins told her story of achievement during Degrees of Impact, a virtual fundraiser that raised $600,000 for One Million Degrees, a Chicago-based non-profit that provides services to accelerate community college students’ progress on their road toward earning a degree. 

Jim and Tiffany One Million Degrees
James Coleman & Tiffany Spraggins

“Nothing about that (journey) was easy, but it led me to today and ultimately to working at Accenture. This is truly a full circle moment,” Spraggins said during the event. 

Spraggins was one of about a half-dozen former and current participants in One Million Degrees who spoke about what the program has meant for them. 

Formerly the Illinois Education Foundation, One Million Degrees was founded in 2006 by a group of social entrepreneurs who wanted to help community college students overcome the challenges preventing them from staying in school and finishing the degrees that would enable them to land high-growth, higher-wage careers. 

It is estimated that there are about 8.2 million undergraduates enrolled in public two-year colleges in the U.S. But only one in four students graduates within three years of beginning their studies. 

The organization is focused on helping community college students who “face challenges that make going to school more akin to an obstacle course,” Michael Golden, one of the founders of OMD, said in a blog post

The challenges community college students often must overcome include being low-income, needing remedial work before they can earn college credit, being first generation college students, and being working parents who need to juggle childcare and transportation, Golden said.  

OMD provides tuition help, academic advising, individual coaching, professional development and paid tutoring when needed. It also focuses on accountability by setting clear expectations for scholars and requiring them to sign a contract. 

In the 15 years since it was founded, OMD has tallied an impressive record of helping community college students stay on course to earn their degrees. It has helped 3,000 scholars, provided more than 5,000 hours of professional development and more than 14,000 hours of coaching. 

Most importantly, OMD reports that it has a 98% retention rate among its participants.

During the virtual fundraiser, the non-profit honored Mayor Lori Lightfoot with its first Civic Leaders Award. Lightfoot praised the organization for keeping students pursuing their academic dreams even during the difficult year of the pandemic. 

lori lightfoot
Mayor Lori Lightfoot was honored with a Civic Leaders Award

“It truly takes a village to support our students from the time they are born and beyond as they pursue excellence at every stage of their academic careers,” she said.

Another award, OMD’s Corporate Leader Award, was given by Spraggins to James Coleman, senior managing director and Chicago Office managing director at Accenture. 

Coleman recalled meeting Spraggins and learning about OMD at a breakfast for corporate leaders a few years ago.

“I immediately felt a connection with OMD’s mission and the amazing potential of the scholars who shared their experiences and goals,” he said. “There’s no question I felt the value community college students could bring to Accenture.” 

In 2017, Accenture, along with Aon and Zurich North America, founded The Chicago Apprentice Network, which provides paid apprenticeship opportunities to students. 

Asked to describe what OMD has meant for them, several scholars said it’s not just a program, but a family, representing hope, freedom and a bridge to success. 

In an example of ways OMD builds community, attendees also had the opportunity to break bread together and have some fun. They made a dinner they could all enjoy even if they weren’t eating at the same table. 

Chef Devon Quinn

Chef Devon Quinn of Chicago restaurant Eden demonstrated how to make roast chicken with spring vegetables. 

Summing up OMD in his blog post, Golden emphasized the personal connections made by students and coaches.

“For many of our scholars, it is the first time they have had someone on their side. Someone looking over their shoulder to hold them accountable. Someone to believe in them — to care,” he said. 

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Ann Marie Scheidler is a freelance writer who lives in the Chicago suburbs with her husband and five children. She tends to be where her kids are, but if you can’t find her there, she’s proudly supporting Beacon Place as one of its newest board members. Beacon Place is a nonprofit organization that has changed the lives of 4,000 children and families in Waukegan. Their innovative programs take a whole child and family approach to education, enrichment and healthy lifestyles support.

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