CHICAGO – When Diana Anisova was a freshman in high school in the northwestern suburbs of Chicago, she heard about a program that allowed her to attend Harper College for free.

“They told us about the requirements, and I remember thinking, ‘What’s the matter?’ “- recalled Anisova, who spent her early childhood in Russia. “All you need to do is get As, Bs, Cs, get a few hours of community service and fail any class? That’s all? That’s what I did. “

Most of those who enrolled as high school students did not follow suit, but Anisova, now 20, kept to her path, and later this month she will graduate from Harper without a penny of student debt. In the fall, she headed to the University of Illinois at Chicago to continue her studies with the goal of becoming a financial analyst.

This is the result President Joe Biden intended last year when he issued a “guarantee” of a free public college, portraying it as a way to strengthen the middle class and increase America’s competitiveness.

The guarantee has stopped in the battle for Washington’s budget – First Lady Jill Biden, who teaches at Virginia Public College, said in February that the plan was no longer being considered – but more and more schools like Harper College are taking on the task.

The college is graduating from the second grade of students who have earned free tuition on the Promise Scholarship. A similar program at Chicago’s urban colleges, known as the Star Scholarship, is in its seventh year. Sauk Valley Community College in Dixon will launch its own program this fall.

Transactions are not open to everyone, as they have minimum requirements for the average score and other conditions. But for those who claim, the award can change lives.

“I thought a lot about it (applying for a four-year school) but then saw the tuition fee,” said 20-year-old Michael Nweigbo, who graduated from Kennedy King College in Chicago last year and now plans to study construction at UIC . “If it weren’t for the Star Scholarship, I wouldn’t have gone to college at all.”

“It’s an access game”

Former Chicago Mayor Ram Emmanuel announced Star Scholarships in 2014, promoting them as a way to help students in need but well-prepared: recipients must have an overall high school grade point average 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 simple and realistic path to higher education.

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

Tuition for full-time students at city colleges is about $ 3,500 a year, and, like other free public college programs, the Star Scholarship only takes effect after a student receives federal and state financial aid. But it can be more complicated than you think.

Salgado said students at urban colleges are often late in applying for federal financial aid because of inexperience and paperwork requirements, and this could limit their rewards. In other cases, students live in the country without legal permission and are not eligible for federal assistance.

21-year-old Chicago resident Ruth Flores is a DACA recipient and throughout high school has worried about getting enough money for college. She assumed she would have to work before enrolling in higher education, but the Star Scholarship allowed her to start immediately, she said.

She graduated from Daly College last year and is currently studying at UIC, studying psychology with a view to becoming an education consultant. Without the scholarship, she said: “It would take me much longer to get a junior specialist degree.”

According to Salgado, just under half of scholarship recipients graduate from urban colleges, which is twice as high as the figure for general students. But Andrew Johnson, a lecturer and consultant on access to college at Chicago’s Westinghouse College Prep, said it should encourage students to consider scholarships at a public college to broaden their horizons.

He said graduation rates in four-year schools tend to be much higher – for example, the UIC is 62% – and with maximum financial aid some may offer deals close to a free trip.

“It’s not just about how much the college costs, but also what you get for that money – support, advice, results, connections with faculty and other students,” he said. “There’s a lot you need to figure out what’s worth it.”

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

Ruth Flores is near Daly College in Chicago on May 11, 2022. Flores attended Daly College on a scholarship that paid for all of her expenses.

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