You are currently viewing Biden’s plan for free community college stalled, but at some Chicago-area schools it’s already happening – Chicago Tribune

Biden’s plan for free community college stalled, but at some Chicago-area schools it’s already happening – Chicago Tribune

When Diana Anisova was a freshman in high school in the northwest suburbs, she heard about a program that would allow her to attend Harper College tuition-free.

“They told us about the requirements and I remember thinking, ‘What’s the problem? “recalls Anisova, who spent her early childhood in Russia. “’All you have to do is get A’s, B’s, C’s, get community service hours and don’t miss a class? That’s it? That’s what I did.

Most of those who signed up as high schoolers didn’t follow through, but Anisova, now 20, followed her path, and later this month she’ll graduate from Harper penniless from student loan debt. In the fall, she heads to the University of Illinois at Chicago to continue her studies with the goal of becoming a financial analyst.

It’s the kind of outcome President Joe Biden envisioned last year when he issued a free community college “guarantee,” portraying it as a way to solidify the middle class and improve American competitiveness.

The guarantee dissolved in Washington’s budget battles – First Lady Jill Biden, who teaches at a community college in Virginia, said in February the plan was no longer on the table – but increasingly, schools like Harper College take on this task.

The college is completing its second class of students who have obtained free tuition through the Promise Scholarship. A similar program at City Colleges of Chicago, known as the Star Scholarship, is in its seventh year. Sauk Valley Community College in Dixon will launch its own program this fall.

Offers are not open to everyone, as they come with minimum GPA requirements and other conditions. But for those who qualify, the prize can be life changing.

“I thought a lot about (applying for a four-year school), but then I saw the tuition,” said Michael Nwaigbo, 20, who graduated from Kennedy-King College in Chicago last year and now planning to study civil engineering at UIC. “Without the Star Scholarship, I wouldn’t have gone to college at all.”

Former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced the Star Scholarships in 2014, touting them as a way to help needy but well-prepared students: Recipients must have a cumulative GPA of at least 3.0.

The scholarship covers tuition and books. Chancellor Juan Salgado said the idea was to motivate secondary school students by presenting a simple and realistic path to higher education.

“It’s really an access game…because you don’t have to worry about finances for your first two years,” he said.

Tuition for a full-time student at City Colleges is approximately $3,500 per year, and like other free community college programs, the Star Scholarship does not become effective until after that a student has received federal and state financial aid. But it may be more complicated than you think.

Salgado said City College students often apply late for federal financial aid, stymied by inexperience and paperwork requirements, which can limit their scholarships. In other cases, students are living in the country without legal permission and are not eligible for federal aid.

Chicagoan Ruth Flores, 21, is a DACA recipient and throughout high school worried about having enough money for college. She thought she should work before starting graduate school, but the Star scholarship allowed her to start immediately, she said.

She graduated from Daley College last year and is now at UIC, studying psychology with the aim of becoming a school counselor. Without the scholarship, she said, “It would have taken me a lot longer to get my associate’s degree.”

Just under half of scholarship recipients eventually graduate from City Colleges, Salgado said, which is twice the rate for all students. But Andrew Johnson, a teacher and college access counselor at Westinghouse College Prep in Chicago, said it should inspire students to consider a community college scholarship to broaden their horizons.

He said graduation rates at four-year schools tend to be much higher – UIC, for example, is 62% – and with maximum financial aid, some can offer offers close to one. free ride.

“It’s not just about how much college costs, it’s about what you get for that money – support, guidance, results, relationships with professors and other students,” he said. . “There are a lot of things that go into determining what is worth what.”

Salgado said City Colleges are increasing support for their students, including tutoring, counseling and mental health services.

Harper College takes a different approach with its Promise Scholarship program, which offers free tuition but no books. Its minimum GPA is 2.3, but it requires students to enroll as high school seniors, limits the absences they can accrue, and requires them to perform community service.

As a result, the program experiences a lot of attrition before students reach university age – only about 7% of those who enroll in first year end up winning the scholarship – but administrator Michelé Smith said that is to be expected when almost all students enroll during high school registration.

“Over time, students fall for various reasons,” she said. “There are a number of students who never intended to come to Harper. … From their first year, they know that they are going to go to a (four-year) university, so they no longer meet this criterion.

Even so, hundreds of students enroll as Promise Scholars each year, with around 40% graduating (the school says some leave early to enroll in four-year institutions). Adan Ramirez, a 20-year-old from Rolling Meadows, is expected to become one of them later this month before heading to Trinity International University in Deerfield to complete his bachelor’s degree.

He said he still had to cover about $3,000 in non-school expenses at Harper, but that was manageable with a part-time job and help from his parents. Given the importance he and his family place on higher education, he said, he would have found a way to go to college no matter what. But the Promise scholarship has certainly made it easier.

“Without the scholarship it would have been much more difficult,” he said.

Other community colleges in suburban Chicago have their own tuition-free programs, usually tied to high grade point averages or class rankings.

But Matt Berry, spokesman for the Illinois Community College Board, said there has been no overall push to expand these programs after the state increased funding for the monetary reward program, the grant-based on requirements known as MAP, of $122 million.

Some think the nationwide free tuition model proposed by the Biden administration might still be the best way forward. Dick Startz, professor of economics at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said it could remove the mental barriers that discourage some from pursuing higher education.

“If everyone knew community college was free, then everyone would have the mindset that if they wanted to go to community college, they could,” he said.

Meanwhile, at least one school in Illinois is moving forward with its own version of the Promise scholarship.

Sauk Valley Community College, emulating Harper’s approach, will start with high school freshmen and expects 600 to enroll by the time they’re ready for college in four years.

Lori Cortez, the school’s dean of institutional advancement, said part of the idea behind the program is to keep students close to home through the community service requirement.

“The data shows that community service is directly linked to population retention,” she said. “As Illinois is one of the highest emigrant states in the nation, we need to do more than offer MAP funding to retain citizens.”

jkeilman@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @JohnKeilman

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