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Cutting higher ed costs for Chicago’s disadvantaged students

In Chicago, two initiatives were launched to improve access to higher education for lower-income students. To explore the strategies that community colleges and the University of Chicago are planning to use to attract these students, Jeffrey Brown speaks with Robert Zimmer, president of the University of Chicago, and Cheryl Hyman, chancellor of the City Colleges of Chicago.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Now, back here at home, some news about college.

    Two separate pushes were announced today in Chicago aimed at improving access to higher education among lower-income students.

    Jeffrey Brown has the story.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The moves, announced separately, will eliminate costs at one of the nation's most elite universities and at the city's community colleges.

    University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer announced a plan that will replace loans with grants, simplify the application process, and ensure that some students don't have to take jobs during the academic year. University officials said the changes will build on programs for lower-income students at the school, such as Anthony Downer.

    ANTHONY DOWNER, Student, University of Chicago: I knew I wanted to attend a top college, but the question for my family and so many other low-income families was, how will we pay for it?

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Chicago's Mayor Rahm Emanuel also announced a separate plan to provide free community college tuition to all Chicago public high school students who graduate with a 3.0 grade-point average or better and are ready for college-level math and English.

  • MAYOR RAHM EMANUEL, Chicago:

    We live in a time where you earn what you learn. The big factor in determining whether people complete school, drop out of the school is cost.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The proposals come amid growing pressure on colleges and universities to enroll and graduate more disadvantaged students. And they follow similar moves around the country.

    Tulsa, Oklahoma, and the state of Tennessee, for example, are providing free tuition at community colleges with the hope of raising low graduation rates. Among top-tier schools, several have policies guaranteeing lower-income families don't have to pay for college.

    Still, disadvantaged students remain poorly represented on many of their campuses.

    Here to tell us more about these initiatives are Robert Zimmer, president of the University of Chicago, and Cheryl Hyman, chancellor of City Colleges of Chicago.

    Well, welcome, both, to you.

    Cheryl, to you first.

    CHERYL HYMAN, Chancellor, City Colleges of Chicago: Hi.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Why is this necessary? What's the problem that is preventing more students from attending college?

  • CHERYL HYMAN:

    It is extremely necessary because we want to make sure that all Chicagoans have a chance to succeed. We want to make sure that we shift the paradigm of community colleges from those being solely focused on access to those that are coupled with access and success.

    Now, what does success mean? Success means that all of our students graduate with a credential of economic value, which Mayor Emanuel and I addressed in 2011, when we launched College to Careers, but that we remove the barriers that exist as well.

    And so one of the main barriers that a lot of students face nowadays, particularly with the increase in student debt, is finances. And so we believe that when a student is performing well, and they are college-ready coming out of high school, we should try to remove every possible barrier we can to help them succeed.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And how many…

  • CHERYL HYMAN:

    And so it's incredibly important that we do that.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Excuse me.

    How many graduates do you think there will be that will hit that GPA and other marks that are required? How many students are you talking about that you think you can reach here?

  • CHERYL HYMAN:

    So we're thinking that the first year, there will be about 2,000 that will qualify.

    We're anticipating that we will get somewhat in the upper numbers of at least half and continue to grow that number to come to us. What we do know is that at least about 1,500 students graduated who could have taken advantage of this that didn't go to college at all. And we want to ensure that that doesn't happen again.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And can you tell us briefly just how this would be paid for? Because the mayor was — wasn't giving specifics today from what I gather.

  • CHERYL HYMAN:

    Yes.

    So, it's important to know that students will still be able to take advantage of applying for their federal and Pell assistance. We want them to take advantage of every financial opportunity. But, back in June, I talked about in a speech that I delivered to the City Club how City Colleges have been able to concentrate our capital investment through our College to Careers.

    So through our College to Careers program, we have been able to consolidate programs and strategically make investments in very specific colleges and not duplicate those investments, because we have each one of our colleges now singularly focused on one area.

    So now, instead of duplicating investments in nursing in five places, we're building a new $251 million school where we can make those investments in one place.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    All right.

  • CHERYL HYMAN:

    And through those efficiencies, we have saved about $10 million.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    All right, let me ask Robert Zimmer, the University of Chicago.

    In asking you why you're doing what you're doing, the charge has been out there that many elite schools have just not done enough to attract lower-income students, and that's exacerbating big problems within our culture over income inequities.

    How do you plead to that?

    ROBERT ZIMMER, President, University of Chicago: Well, the reason we undertook this program in the first place was our belief in the importance of education and the power of that education to transform lives and to change the trajectory of families.

    If we're going to be acting on that belief in the strongest possible ways, we are in fact going to have to do more to attract lower-income families and moderate-income families into elite institutions, such as the University of Chicago.

    So this was a program. It wasn't our first program. But it is a continuation of a set of programs that are designed specifically to address the issue you raised, namely, that there are many outstanding, academically qualified students of lower family income who can in fact succeed very well at an elite institution, like the University of Chicago, and that we have to do more to get them in.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Other schools have tried various things. We have done some reports on those efforts on this program, and, yet, the numbers don't budge a whole lot. I wonder, have you looked at what has been tried? Have you seen what the problems are? And have you figured out exactly, sort of specifically, how to raise those numbers?

  • ROBERT ZIMMER:

    Yes.

    We have done a great deal of analysis on this. And we have what we believe is a comprehensive program to systemically address the set of issues that we see as being barriers to students applying to our elite institutions.

    This includes issues around expectation of student debt, which we are eliminating. It includes issues around application fees, simplicity vs. complexity of the entire process. It includes a feeling that one is going to be able to have additional support to participate fully in the life of the institution. And there is the question of preparing students for careers afterwards.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And I ask you, just very briefly, do you have a specific goal, a number of students you feel you need to attract to get the diversity you want?

  • ROBERT ZIMMER:

    Well, right now, we expect this program to be relevant to about half of our students when it's fully phased in.

    That would be if our numbers remained about the same right now. But we do expect that number to increase, and we are walking for it to increase. Half right now would mean approximately or close to 3,000 students, and we certainly want to see that number increase.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    All right, Robert Zimmer of the University of Chicago, and Cheryl Hyman of City Colleges of Chicago, thank you both very much.

  • CHERYL HYMAN:

    Thank you very much.

  • ROBERT ZIMMER:

    Thank you.

  • CHERYL HYMAN:

    Thank you.

    PBS NewsHour coverage of higher education is supported by the Lumina Foundation and American Graduate: Let's Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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