Chicago offers unprecented incentive for students to go to college

New program offered by Chicago and City Colleges will provide free tuition to high-performing high school students who want to go to college

chicago-tuition-freeEvery year, hundreds of Chicago Public Schools students earn decent grades, graduate from high school and then … flounder. Many of them don’t get the encouragement to enroll in college, many can’t afford college tuition. That’s a shame for them, their families and all of Chicago.

We’ve emphasized over the past year in our series pressing for a new Plan of Chicago that everyone — every citizen, every employer —has a huge stake in launching accomplished, ambitious students into and through college. Students who finish college have a much better chance to snag good jobs, support their families and build a better city. Yet only about 8 in 100 CPS high school freshmen earn a bachelor’s degree by their mid-20s.

On Wednesday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and City Colleges officials announced a bid to jolt Chicago out of that record of failure.

Qualified CPS graduates will be eligible for free tuition at the city’s seven career-pathway community colleges.

The program, called the Chicago Star Scholarship, will cover the difference between the estimated $11,000 cost of a two-year degree and a student’s federal and state financial aid award. The scholarship will be available only to students who’ve done well in high school — who have at least a 3.0 grade-point average and have demonstrated they are academically ready for college-level math and English courses.

The scholarships, which will be available next fall, will cost City Colleges about $2 million the first year, officials estimate. The money will come from savings yielded by streamlining the City Colleges system. For instance, officials are consolidating multiple health science and nursing programs onto a single campus.

The aim of the program is to not only remove an economic barrier for good students, but motivate students to keep their grades up.

It could also likely boost the abysmal (though rising) graduation rate of the City Colleges system by encouraging better-prepared students to enroll. Many students who graduate from CPS and enroll in City Colleges aren’t ready for college level-work. The huge cost of remedial education for them falls on the college system, and most don’t complete a two-year degree.

(Next page: The future; acknowledging the pitfalls)