Mayor Rahm Emanuel
Mayor Rahm Emanuel greets parent Sergio Ruiz at a Chicago Star Scholarship information session held at Wells Community Academy High School in December. The scholarship provides tuition, fees and book waivers to qualifying CPS graduates. Credit: Photo by Michelle Kanaar

Speaking in Spanish before a group of high-achieving students and their parents, Luis Narvaez made a simple acknowledgement after explaining how they could get free tuition at one of the city’s community colleges.

“We know students don’t always think of the City Colleges [of Chicago] as their first choice,” Narvaez, a CPS specialist for special populations, said at the winter session at Wells Community Academy High School. “One thing is whether you want to go to a particular college. And another is what you’re going to pay.”’

Since City Colleges began taking applications for a plan widely advertised as “free college” by a campaigning Mayor Rahm Emanuel, more than 1,000 students have applied for the offer of waived tuition, books and school fees.

Lack of successThe idea sounds good, given that City Colleges remains the top post-secondary destination for CPS graduates. And the plan got a publicity boost from President Barack Obama, who said it inspired his own proposal to offer free community college on a national basis for high school graduates who can maintain a 2.5 GPA in college. The president’s proposal also borrows from the Tennessee Promise, an offer of free tuition at community college for all high school graduates in that state.

The Chicago plan, however, has some important caveats.

For one, the Chicago Star Scholarship only kicks in after federal grants and financial aid are applied to tuition and fees. That leaves a small pool of young people to potentially benefit: According to City Colleges, the majority of qualifying students would get federal and state aid, which typically covers all costs.

Second, students who meet the scholarship requirements — including a 3.0 grade-point average and placement into college-level math and English courses — aren’t the typical demographic at City Colleges, where 90 percent of incoming freshmen need to take remedial courses.

In fact, higher-achieving students have traditionally avoided City Colleges, and research shows that the school’s relatively poor outcomes — low graduation rates, low transfer rates to four-year colleges — have a more detrimental impact on better students.

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In taking advantage of the Star Scholarship, “price-sensitive, high-achieving students might be the only group that could be potentially harmed,” says Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of educational policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. “Not only is this not a really effective policy design, but it might very well have unintended consequences.”

Goldrick-Rab co-authored a report last year that showed that CPS graduates who had the academic background to attend a selective four-year college but instead enrolled in a City College were 31 to 41 percentage points less likely to earn a bachelor’s degree within six years than similar students who opted to attend a four-year school instead. The study was published in the journal Sociological Science.

City College officials don’t buy the implications. In a statement, officials said they “don’t believe at all” that high-achievers will fare worse at a City College. Spokeswoman Nikole Muzzy stressed the financial advantages. The average cost of a two-year degree at a City College, including tuition, fees and books, is about $8,000.

“With the rising cost of higher education, students need to consider all higher education options,” Muzzy says. “By starting at a community college and then transferring to a bachelor’s degree program, students can save thousands of dollars.”

But just seven percent of CPS students who enroll in a two-year college ultimately earn a bachelor’s degree, according to a recent study from the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research.

Matthew Holsapple, a senior research analyst at the Consortium, says it is “important to not just assume that because those students are high-achieving, they will do well in the City Colleges.”

Any student “can struggle with things like how to advocate for themselves, find help when they need it, navigate a bureaucracy,” Holsapple says. “If we end up with a bunch of high-achieving students who would otherwise be going to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I would be concerned and want to make sure we’d be giving those students the kinds of support they need both to succeed at City College and transfer out.”

As part of its “Reinvention” effort to improve City College programs and practices, the administration has doubled the number of advisers available to meet with students on what courses they should take, Muzzy says, and added “transfer centers” to help students apply to four-year programs.

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Despite the concerns, city and CPS officials say the Chicago Star Scholarship would provide at least one option for an estimated 1,500 graduates who would meet the requirements but would otherwise not be likely to enroll in any college.

“When a student works hard and gets the grades, that student should not be denied a college education because they do not have the finances,” said CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett during the informational session at Wells High School. “If money is the barrier, we need to remove it.”

CPS officials declined to provide details on the students they say fit the profile of potential scholarship recipients. According to Holsapple, the data he has looked at indicates they generally come from high schools in low-income neighborhoods with low graduation rates.

Some of those students are likely to be undocumented immigrants, who would most likely benefit because they aren’t eligible for federal student aid. (No data are available to show how many students are undocumented.)

Dozens of undocumented students and their parents attended the session at Wells, where district and college officials even offered a special workshop to answer their specific questions.

Guadalupe Cruz, a senior at Amundsen High School on the North Side, and her parents were among them. The family is from Mexico and is undocumented.

“We’re not in a position to take out loans,” explained her mother, Alicia Mondragon. “My oldest daughter graduated from Lane Tech, but she couldn’t attend any university because we couldn’t afford it.”

Cruz says she’ll likely take advantage of the Star Scholarship to take courses toward a degree in social work. But, without federal aid, she doesn’t yet know how she could pay the costs to transfer into a four-year college.

Because she was brought to the U.S. illegally as a child, Cruz, who is now 18, qualified for deferred action last year. The deferred action policy, known as DACA, gives young immigrants two-year renewable work permits and exemptions from immigration enforcement. However, it is no permanent guarantee for immigrants like Cruz.

“The idea of finishing school and not being able to do anything scares me,” Cruz admits, voicing a fear shared by many undocumented students.

Still, not everyone at the session had the same concerns.

Lucia De Leon, a program assistant at Austin Polytechnical Academy, brought a half- dozen students to the session. The students likely won’t qualify for the Star Scholarship; most will probably be able to get Pell grants and might need remedial coursework.

But De Leon believed the information session might pique their interest in college overall — and show them that City Colleges could be a good place to start. City Colleges’ reputation has improved since she attended Wright College herself, she said.

“When I was at Wright, a lot of kids didn’t graduate. But I think they’re getting a lot better,” De Leon says. “They’re more connected to the universities, so students can transfer.”

Melissa Sanchez is a reporter for The Chicago Reporter. Email her at and follow her on Twitter at @msanchezMIA.

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