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

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

“They told us about the requirements and I remember thinking, ‘What’s the twist?’ ” recalled Anisova, who spent her early childhood in Russia. “‘All you have to do is get As, Bs, Cs, get some community service hours and not fail any classes? That’s it? That’s what I’ve been doing.’”

Most who signed up as high schoolers didn’t follow through, but Anisova, now 20, stuck to her path, and later this month she’ll graduate from Harper without a penny of student loan debt. In the fall, she’s headed to the University of Illinois at Chicago to continue her studies with the goal of becoming a financial analyst.

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

The guarantee dissolved in Washington’s budget battles — first lady Jill Biden, who teaches at a Virginia community college, said in February the plan was no longer on the table — but increasingly, schools like Harper College are taking that task upon themselves.

The college is graduating its second class of students who earned free tuition through the Promise Scholarship. A similar program at the 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.

The deals aren’t open to everyone, since they come with minimum grade-point average requirements and other conditions. But for those who qualify, the award can be life-changing.

“I gave a lot of thought to (applying to a four-year school), but then I saw the tuition,” said Michael Nwaigbo, 20, who graduated from Chicago’s Kennedy-King College last year and now plans to study civil engineering at UIC. “If not for the Star Scholarship, I wouldn’t have gone to college at all.”

‘It’s an access play’

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

The scholarship covers tuition and books. Chancellor Juan Salgado said the idea is to motivate high school students by presenting a straightforward and realistic route to higher education.

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

Tuition for a full-time student at City Colleges is about $3,500 a year, and similar to other cost-free community college programs, the Star Scholarship kicks in only after a student is awarded federal and state financial aid. But that can be more complicated than you might think.

Salgado said City Colleges’ students often apply late for federal financial aid, stymied by inexperience and paperwork requirements, and that can limit their awards. In other cases, students are living in the country without legal permission and ineligible for federal aid.

Chicagoan Ruth Flores, 21, is a DACA recipient, and all through high school worried about getting enough money for college. She figured she would have to work before starting higher education, but the Star Scholarship allowed her to begin immediately, she said.

She graduated from Daley College last year and is now at UIC, studying psychology with an eye toward becoming an educational adviser. Without the scholarship, she said, “It would have taken me a lot longer to get my associate degree.”

Just under half of scholarship recipients end up graduating from City Colleges, Salgado said, which is twice as high as the rate for the general student body. But Andrew Johnson, a teacher and college access counselor at Chicago’s Westinghouse College Prep, said that should prompt students considering a community college scholarship to broaden their horizons.

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

“It’s not just about how much college costs, it’s about what you get for that money — support, advising, outcomes, connections to professors and other students,” he said. “There’s a whole lot that goes into figuring out what is worth what.”

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

High attrition

Harper College takes a different approach with its Promise Scholarship program, which offers free tuition but not books. Its minimum GPA is 2.3, but it requires students to sign up as high school freshmen, limits the absences they can accumulate and requires them to do community service.

Consequently, the program sees plenty of attrition before students reach college age — only about 7% of those who enroll as freshman end up earning the scholarship — but administrator Michelé Smith said that’s to be expected when nearly every student signs up during high school registration.

“Over time, students fall out for various reasons,” she said. “There are a good number of students who never had any intention of coming to Harper. … By their junior year, they know they’re going to go to (a four-year) university, so they no longer keep up with that criteria.”

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

He said he still had to cover roughly $3,000 in non-tuition expenses at Harper, but that was manageable with a part-time job and the help of 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 certainly made things easier.

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

No statewide push

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

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

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

“If everyone knew community college was free, then it would just be in everyone’s head that if they wanted to go to community college, they could,” he said.

Meanwhile, at least one Illinois school is moving ahead with its own version of the Promise Scholarship.

Sauk Valley Community College, emulating Harper’s approach, will begin with high school freshmen, and anticipates 600 will sign up 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 via the community service requirement.

“Data shows that community service is directly linked to population retainment,” she said. “With Illinois being one of the most out-migrated states in the nation, we need to do more than offer MAP funding to retain citizens.”

jkeilman@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @JohnKeilman