Rahm’s free college offer gets closer look

By Phoebe Tollefson

With an average City Colleges of Chicago graduation rate of just 13 percent and student complaints of expensive enrollment mistakes that delay graduation, Mayor Rahm Emanuel still touts his plan to make community college education free for qualifying applicants.

Lesley-Anne Camilotes is a good example of what can go wrong. Under her adviser’s guidance, the radiology student at Truman College completed the coursework and paid approximately $475 for a higher level math class she did not need to graduate, simply because she tested into it. She is now paying for and completing the required course, a semester behind schedule.

Roberto Montesinos, a student at Richard Daley College, has dealt with his own share of communication lapses and scheduling mistakes. He said he and his peers don’t always get the help they need from advisers.

“They just try to rush us out of their office as fast as they can,” Montesinos said. “They don’t get into depth of what we actually need.”

Andrew Johnson, a college counselor at Chicago Academy, a public high school in Portage Park, is well-versed in these struggles.

“I spend a fair amount of my time trying to expose students to other two-year options just outside the city,” he said. “I shouldn’t have to do that. Wright College is literally a mile from my school, and it should be a viable option for my students and it’s not.”

Even with college preparation programs that begin freshman year and regular check-ins with his former students now at City Colleges, Johnson said the dropout rate is still high. While some factors are beyond the schools’ ability to correct, Johnson said a lack of institutional capacity is a big reason students fall through the cracks.

“Even if you have Mother Teresa working there as an academic adviser, they’re just going to be stretched really, really thin.”

Graph of graduation rates
City College graduation rates have lagged behind state and national rates for years. (Chronicle of Higher Education, City of Chicago, Phoebe Tollefson/Medill)

Johnson also pointed out that the STAR scholarship –which is the mayor’s plan for free tuition at City Colleges for any Chicago Public Schools graduate with a 3.0 grade point average and an ACT test score of 21 or higher – only covers whatever costs federal financial aid does not. For the mostly low-income student body, this isn’t much. Johnson said many students at the City Colleges already qualify for full aid.

“People just talk about how it’s going to be free, as if that’s a new thing,” he said. “For so many students, that would not be a new thing.”

Matthew Holsapple, a senior research analyst at the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research, agrees that the City Colleges may need more resources for the mayor’s plans to work.

A combination of summer classes, individual education plans for each student and more job training is intended to help boost the graduation rate 8 percentage points over the next three years, according to a position paper by the mayor.

“That’s a lot of work,” Holsapple said. “So, making sure that the colleges have the support they need, the personnel and professional expertise to do that would be important.”

Holsapple said his research debunks the myth that students who perform well in high school will enjoy “preordained success” in college.

“That’s not true at all,” Holsapple said. “High-achieving students absolutely have trouble graduating at some colleges. It’s not automatic by any stretch of the imagination.”

The City Colleges declined to comment on students’ stories or say if additional staff or programming was planned for the fall.

President Obama discussed a similar proposal to waive tuition at community colleges nationwide in his State of the Union address Tuesday night. Emanuel said Chicago’s STAR scholarship served as a model for the president’s proposal.

Photo at top: Students walk outside Harold Washington College. (Phoebe Tollefson/Medill)