IBJ: You came in as president in July 2008. What did you see as job one?
Costello: Strategically, I did an analysis of the budget, personnel, how the college was performing and what was best for our students and the community to determine how we could fine-tune our performance. Tactically, my first priority was updating our website because that’s where most prospective students and their parents shop for college. Fast forward five years and we just won five national digital marketing awards in 2013.
IBJ: What’s been accomplished since then?
Costello: We’ve attracted significant grant-funded capital development, particularly at our Belleville Campus, investing more than $28 million since 2008. $19.1 million of that amount went to complete phase two of our Liberal Arts Complex, which will soon achieve LEED certification for sustainability.
We also worked with IDOT and St. Clair County on traffic and pedestrian safety. There were more than 400 people per day crossing Carlyle Avenue to and from the campus. Carlyle carries more than 26,000 vehicles per day so that was not a safe situation. A new $2 million pedestrian bridge was built to remedy that. We also worked with St. Clair County on a new bicycle and walking bridge across Green Mount Road to the campus which is currently under construction.
IBJ: How has the curriculum changed?
Costello: Three major areas of activity are dual-credit courses, online instruction, and meeting the increasing demand for technical education training.
We are offering more dual-credit classes than ever before, which allows top high school students to each college credit in their last two years. We are also offering far more online classes, and we’ve upgraded our information technology services to make sure our students have the highest level of technology available to give them skills on the latest equipment.
We received a Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training grant that we used on advanced manufacturing. We’ve invested more than $2 million in equipment in the Sam Wolf Granite City campus. It has not only put SWIC on the map in the Midwest, but nationwide as far as the state-of-the-art quality of the machinery and advanced manufacturing skills that our students are being taught. Just this last year, and for the first time in the history of national competitions of precision machining, Southwestern Illinois College took first and third in national competition. Our first-place winner will go on to represent the United States in the international competition next year.
IBJ: Are most of your students focused on an associate’s degree or going on for a Bachelor’s?
Costello: 54 percent of our students will graduate to pursue a four-year degree. The other 46 percent earn an associate degree or a certificate. They walk out into our communities and they take care of us. They are our policemen, our firemen, our nurses, our radiology technicians, our certified nurse assistants; they’re all the people who are out there taking care all of us who live in the surrounding communities.
IBJ: With Scott Air Force Base in your jurisdiction, do you work with soldiers and veterans?
Costello: Today SWIC proudly serves more than 1,900 veterans and 800 of their dependents, which is more than any other public education institution in Illinois.
Last spring we received the Governor’s award for Excellence in Education for our veterans programs. At about the same time we were recognized nationally as a Military Friendly School. Last fall the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs gave us a VetSuccess on Campus Award, one of only 94 bestowed in the entire United States, with only a handful given to community colleges.
IBJ: What is the age range of your students?
Costello: We serve students from ages 8 to 80 but we provide them with two things that translate across every demographic segment: value and success. SWIC offers superior instruction for the lowest credit-hour price. We consistently rank in the top-100 institutions nationally in conferring degrees and certificates; we graduate more students than any other community college in Illinois outside Chicago; and our licensure pass rates are consistently among the highest regionally and in the nation.
Extending that success formula via high school partnerships, SWIC has a new program called Running Start that we’re very excited about. High school juniors who pass our test and have the required grade-point average can become a student at Southwestern Illinois College and finish their first two years of college while also earning their high school diploma. They come to our campus and they are students in our classrooms. Within a two-year period these students are earning their high school diplomas and their associate degree, ready to move on to pursue their bachelor’s degree.
IBJ: What are your plans for the future?
Costello: Catering to the national call for a greater educational emphasis on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math – or STEM — we hope to build a new science and technology education building. It’s an ambitious goal for us but it is one that we’re heavily pursuing.
More broadly speaking, we will continue to partner with business and industry to meet their ever-changing training needs; we will continue to grow our partnerships with high schools and pursue even more opportunities with K-8 school systems; and will continue focus on lifelong learning as our core mission and student success as our measuring stick for performance.