Another step for free college

Chicago Academy High School

Photo by William Camargo

Chicago Academy High School students listen to college coordinator Andrew Johnson during a college and ACT prep course. Leaders of the citywide Thrive Chicago education initiative want all high schools to offer at least one college-focused course.

You can’t help but root for Breyana Floyd.

With support from the non-profit OneGoal and a lot of hard work and long days during high school, she made it from her rough Austin neighborhood to quiet Monmouth College, a tiny liberal arts school in western Illinois. Reading her story, you hope and pray she makes it to senior year and graduation.

If she does, Breyana will become an all-too-rare success story. The connection to economic status and race is obvious: Nationally, 11 percent of low-income, first-generation students — most of them black or brown — finish college, compared to 82 percent of students from top-income families.

To close the gap here in Chicago, CPS, to its credit, has forged agreements with local higher education institutions to improve college persistence. Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Thrive Chicago initiative and non-profits like OneGoal and others are tackling the problem too.

It’s not hard to figure out what kind of assistance Chicago students need to get to and through college. For one, they have to be academically ready to do university-level work. Teachers and counselors need to guide them to the college or university that best meets their career interests, skills and personality — the kind of guidance middle-class kids get informally from parents or siblings or relatives who’ve already finished college. Plus, low-income students of color need support to handle the culture shock they will almost inevitably experience as they leave the ’hood for predominantly white campuses and compete with students from privileged backgrounds.

A bigger shareMore than anything, though, students like Breyana need money. Not just for tuition and fees, but also for the extra costs that crop up, such as canvasses and camera lenses for an art major, extras to spruce up a dorm room, money for a bus trip or a plane ride back home.

As retired University of Chicago educator Marvin Hoffman summed up this way in a guest column for Catalyst Chicago: “The low-income students who represent the vast majority of those in CPS are operating without the safety net that is invisible to most middle-class families…Any new strain on the finances of a student or a family already struggling to provide for basic needs — an unexpected medical bill, a costly car repair, an increase in dormitory costs — is sufficient to lead students to drop out or take a leave from school, from which they are unlikely to return.”

Maybe it’s time to take an entirely new direction. Emanuel recently launched the Star Scholarship, a plan to offer free tuition, fees and books at City Colleges of Chicago. Whatever the caveats — for one, the scholarship kicks in only after federal student financial aid is applied — the idea is at least an opening salvo in the war to bring down the cost of post-secondary education. President Barack Obama has offered a national proposal for free community college. And cities across the country, from New Haven, Connecticut, to Saginaw, Michigan, to San Francisco, have similar plans up and running or in the works, according to the national Campaign for Free College Tuition.

The next frontier is tuition-free four-year college. That’s already a reality at some of the country’s most prestigious universities. MIT, Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Brown and a few other schools with big endowments offer free tuition for students from lower and moderate-income families.

In the Lumina Foundation report “Redefining College Affordability,” Sara Goldrick-Rab and Nancy Kendall of the University of Wisconsin at Madison urge that billions in federal financial aid be redirected (along with some state money) to offer free tuition for two years at any public two- or four-year college.

In an interview with Associate Editor Melissa Sanchez, Goldrick-Rab said that in her view, a good free college program would provide additional resources beyond tuition, books and fees and include a stipend for housing, day care and other costs.

“I would do everything I can to keep them from having to work while they’re in school,” Goldrick-Rab said.

According to research cited in her report, “engagement in college and the likelihood of degree completion decline with substantial work hours, especially among full-time students, pushing students towards additional borrowing in lieu of work.”

Free college is a radical notion. Making it a reality would take a radical shift in thinking among policymakers, not to mention politicians. But with college debt and student loan default rates both on the rise, no one, least of all young people, benefits from the status quo.