Thousands of Chicago high school students and their parents offered a debt-free college education

In a week-long series of announcements at five Chicago public high schools, four thousand students learned they–and one of their parents or guardians–would receive a debt-free college education at one of 20 Illinois colleges and professional schools partnered with the nonprofit Hope Chicago. Through the city-wide, multigenerational scholarship program, students who enroll in a participating college also will receive a laptop and an annual stipend for additional expenses, and parents and guardians will be eligible to be Hope Scholars if they have a child enrolled in a full-time program. Students who choose instead to attend an out-of-network school will get a $1,000 yearly stipend for travel and other expenses.

The surprise college scholarships–announced at Farragut Career Academy, Noble Johnson Prep, Morgan Park High School, Al Raby School for Community and Environment, and Benito Juárez Community Academy–are part of Hope Chicago’s inaugural effort to fund college and professional education for 24,000 students and 6,000 parents in the next decade.

Founded in 2021 by philanthropists Pete Kadens and Ted Koenig, and led by former Chicago Public Schools (CPS) CEO Janice Jackson, Hope Chicago started with $20 million but plans to raise and invest $1 billion in the next decade for scholarships and wraparound services, the Chicago Sun-Times reports. “I’m happy that we’re doing this at five schools,” Jackson tells Block Club Chicago, “but the reality is, we have 150 schools in CPS, and a whole bunch of them need support like this.”

Easing barriers to higher education

Hope Chicago builds on a scholarship model Kadens announced in 2020 for students and their families in his hometown of Toledo, Ohio, according to CBS News. Now, the Hope Chicago team aims to reduce the financial barriers and other impediments preventing Chicago students from enrolling in and completing college.

Citing a January analysis from OneGoal, a nonprofit that prepares high school students for college, the Chicago Sun-Times reports that 71 percent of first-generation college students said that financial concerns were a big obstacle to applying to college. The pandemic and rising college costs have exacerbated financial barriers for students from both lower and middle-class families.

The scholarship news was a welcome surprise to eligible Chicago students and their families. Cara Wilmington tells the Chicago Tribune that her daughter, a senior at Morgan Park, considered applying for a City Colleges of Chicago scholarship, which covers the cost of an associate’s degree. “We now can consider a four-year university,” Wilmington says.

Hope Chicago scholarships aim not only to erase financial concerns but also address other hurdles. Students qualify for Hope Chicago scholarships regardless of their citizenship status, GPA, or standardized test scores, factors that limit scholarship eligibility and financial aid access. That kind of barrier “leaves me speechless in so many ways,” says Juarez principal Juan Carols Ocon. Ocon tells NPR, “I think that when our undocumented students realized that their dream of going to college can be fulfilled because that obstacle, that barrier isn’t present, the sky’s the limit for those students.”

Michelle Miller-Adams from the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research says that a scholarship of this magnitude is unprecedented, as it not only pays for all college costs but also covers a parent’s tuition. Adams explains, “…if  the message around affordability is simple enough and it can be delivered consistently throughout K-12, it changes what students do when they finish high school.”

More work to be done

Even after removing the biggest barriers to higher education, Hope Chicago has more work to do to ensure students take full advantage of the scholarship. Jackson tells the Chicago Tribune, “Now the hard work starts, which is we really have to sit down with our students and make sure they understand this opportunity.”

First, students will need to determine which of the 20 partner schools they will attend. Options include four-year colleges, two-year City Colleges of Chicago, private colleges, and trade and professional schools. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Illinois State University are two known partners; Hope Chicago has not yet revealed the names of other institutions. Hope Chicago also plans to work with community-based organizations to help parents who might not have immediate access to their transcripts.

Brenda Muñoz, a stay-at-home-mom, was going back to work to help pay for her daughter’s tuition. Now, she tells NPR, “I’m going to school. There is no staying home, you know? Let’s dream big.”

Looking ahead, Hope Chicago plans to use census data and historical information on college enrollment and completion to effect intergenerational change one community at a time. By offering debt-free postsecondary education to students and their parents, “You can lift up the whole family and lift up the whole community,” Jackson says.

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