Mayor’s debt-for­give­ness pro­gram aims to help city stu­dents fin­ish

Chicago Sun-Times - - TOP NEWS - BY FRAN SPIELMAN, CITY HALL RE­PORTER fspiel­man@sun­ | @fspiel­man

More than 21,000 City Col­leges stu­dents who dropped out over the last decade be­cause they couldn’t af­ford tu­ition and fees could clear their $17.7 mil­lion in debt and re­turn to “fin­ish what they started,” un­der an in­no­va­tive may­oral pro­gram un­veiled Tues­day.

Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel pi­o­neered the Chicago Star Schol­ar­ship that guar­an­teed free City Col­leges tu­ition to any Chicago Pub­lic Schools grad­u­ate with a “B” av­er­age.

Now, Mayor Lori Light­foot has “Fresh Start,” a four-year col­lege debt for­give­ness pro­gram be­gin­ning this fall and con­tin­u­ing through 2023 tai­lor-made to help City Col­leges play a piv­otal role in Chicago’s eco­nomic come­back from the havoc wreaked by the pan­demic.

At a news con­fer­ence at Harold Wash­ing­ton Col­lege, Light­foot and City Col­leges Chan­cel­lor Juan Sal­gado said it was high time to of­fer an eco­nomic life raft to more than 21,000 stu­dents “in good aca­demic stand­ing” who dropped out over the last decade sim­ply be­cause they had fallen hope­lessly be­hind in pay­ing their tu­ition and fees.

Light­foot called it “some­thing I know very well per­son­ally, hav­ing come out of my un­der­grad ca­reer” at the Univer­sity of Michi­gan “with a moun­tain of debt.”

Sal­gado was asked how a City Col­leges sys­tem with a his­tory of fi­nan­cial trou­ble can af­ford to write off $17.7 mil­lion worth of debt.

“This is debt that has al­ready been writ­ten off by our in­sti­tu­tion. Debt that, quite frankly, is not likely to be col­lected in the fu­ture,” he said.

Sal­gado said some of the 21,000 stu­dents el­i­gi­ble for the pro­gram “have as lit­tle as one course or one se­mes­ter left” to ob­tain their de­gree.

Latil Wil­lis is one of the ben­e­fi­cia­ries.

She was at­tend­ing Harold Wash­ing­ton Col­lege in the fall of 2018 — while “work­ing two full-time jobs” — but be­came “over­whelmed” by the load she was car­ry­ing. She dropped a few classes but “missed the tu­ition re­fund dead­line and ended up ac­cu­mu­lat­ing debt she was still re­spon­si­ble” for pay­ing off.

Wil­lis said she al­ways dreamed of earn­ing a busi­ness de­gree and hav­ing a ca­reer in fash­ion. She has longed to “set an ex­am­ple” for her 4-month-old son “so that he can see me go to col­lege and know that it’s pos­si­ble for him as well.”

That’s why she was “beyond ex­cited” to learn about Fresh Start.

“I will fi­nally be able to go back in the class­room and work to­wards my de­gree,” she said.

Light­foot por­trayed Fresh Start as the lat­est chap­ter in the war on poverty she launched be­fore the pan­demic.

Un­der the plan, half of a stu­dent’s out­stand­ing debt would be for­given if they re­main en­rolled and make “sat­is­fac­tory aca­demic progress” through the first term.

The rest would be wiped off the books when they grad­u­ate — ei­ther with an as­so­ciate’s de­gree or an ad­vanced or ba­sic cer­tifi­cate.

The 21,000 el­i­gi­ble stu­dents are 51% Black and 34% His­panic. They come from neigh­bor­hoods that have borne the brunt of the coro­n­avirus be­cause of what Light­foot has called “in­sti­tu­tional racism” and in­equities made worse by the pan­demic.

The reg­is­tra­tion dead­line is Aug. 20. Re­turn­ing stu­dents must: en­roll in at least one credit course; pay a one-time, non-re­fund­able $75 re­in­state­ment fee; meet with ad­vis­ers to de­velop plans to sup­port their goals; com­plete the FAFSA fed­eral stu­dent aid form, if el­i­gi­ble, by an Aug. 1 dead­line; sat­isfy new pay­ment ar­range­ments, ei­ther through a pay­ment plan or fi­nan­cial aid; and re­main en­rolled for the cur­rent term while main­tain­ing “sat­is­fac­tory aca­demic progress.”

“The in­tent here . . . is to make sure that we’re sup­port­ing our stu­dents in their fi­nan­cial plan­ning. Of­ten­times, it is the great im­ped­i­ment that stops our stu­dents in their tracks,” Sal­gado said.

If the tu­ition re­fund dead­line is an is­sue for so many, why not just elim­i­nate that dead­line so stu­dents don’t go into debt in the first place?

“I don’t think it works that way. We’re se­ri­ous about stu­dents pay­ing . . . . It doesn’t help any­body to not have a pay­ment dead­line,” Sal­gado said.

“I don’t be­lieve that we should just be turn­ing a blind eye, then see­ing the con­se­quences later. That’s why you have such high stu­dent debt. All across this coun­try, stu­dents are mak­ing choices with­out a real plan. We’re chang­ing that at City Col­leges. We’ve changed that al­ready.”


City Col­leges Chan­cel­lor Juan Sal­gado and Mayor Lori Light­foot an­nounce Tues­day the “Fresh Start” debt for­give­ness pro­gram.

Latil Wil­lis

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