UChicago Promise helps keep Emanuel’s educational priorities within reach. (Photography by Robert Kozloff)

Clearing hurdles

A new University program helps Chicago high school students navigate obstacles to college.

Research by Melissa Roderick, an urban-education expert in the School of Social Service Administration, has shown that obstacles, real and perceived, prevent qualified students from pursuing higher education. Academic potential often goes unfulfilled for those who lack the resources or support to navigate a complex and expensive application process, let alone to assume the tuition burden of attending college.

Many Chicago high school students fall into that category, and on October 29 University President Robert J. Zimmer announced a new program to remove the barriers to their ambition. UChicago Promise is designed to help students who attend any Chicago public, private, or parochial high school gain admission to, pay for, and succeed in college.

As the centerpiece of the initiative, beginning with the incoming class of 2017, the University will eliminate loans in the financial-aid packages of Chicago high school students admitted to the College, allowing them to graduate without debt. More than 50 students from the city enrolled this fall, including 18 who received full-tuition scholarships through the University’s Chicago Police and Fire and Chicago Public Schools scholarship programs—a record number.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, speaking after the initiative was announced at Kenwood Academy, called UChicago Promise “a creative step that will help many of Chicago’s own achieve their goals and graduate without a financial burden.” Emanuel emphasized postsecondary achievement in his Chicago 2011 Transition Plan for Education, calling for additional support to help the city’s students thrive in college.

According to a 2008 study by the University’s Consortium on Chicago School Research, only 27 percent of Chicago Public Schools students who were qualified to attend a selective college enrolled in a school that matched their academic record. Among those who were qualified to attend a very selective college, only 38 percent enrolled at such a school.

While college enrollment rates have increased, the application process and financial aid complexities still prevent many Chicago students from pursuing the options available to them.

To help alleviate those pressures, UChicago Promise also includes an Admissions Academy, offering assistance to students, their families, and guidance counselors. The academy, which began this past fall with workshops for families, provides information and advice in applying for college and financial aid. Professional development opportunities for guidance counselors are also part of the academy’s offerings.

Chicago students can participate in the Admissions Academy whether or not they plan to apply to the University of Chicago. For those who do—and for all applicants from Chicago high schools—the $75 UChicago application fee will be waived.

Zimmer noted that UChicago Promise complements existing University research and programs designed to improve pre-K–12 schooling. For example, the Urban Education Institute operates the four campuses of the University of Chicago Charter School and the Collegiate Scholars Program assists Chicago tenth through 12th graders in their academic preparation for college. Expertise from across the University, including the School of Social Service Administration and the Consortium on Chicago School Research, will help shape the evolution of UChicago Promise.

“The University of Chicago has a long-standing commitment to improving urban education through research, innovative ideas, and practices,” Zimmer said. “That commitment begins here in our own city.”