Community colleges, a ‘game-changer’ for low-income families, see free tuition cut from social safety bill but remain hopeful. ‘There is momentum afloat.’

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CHICAGO TRIBUNE | By KAREN ANN CULLOTTA

An excerpt

After Tamika Powell lost her job during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, her uncertainty was replaced with hope when she decided to enroll at Chicago’s Harold Washington College to complete an associate arts degree.

 

But Powell, 39, and the mother of a 13-year-old daughter, feared an unpaid $1,500 balance on her City Colleges of Chicago account would prevent her from pursuing her dream of becoming an early childhood educator.

 

“I had a debt, and I wouldn’t have been able to go back to City Colleges without the Fresh Start program,” said Powell, a resident of Chicago’s Pullman neighborhood.

Her unpaid tuition bill was wiped clean through the recently launched City Colleges program, which is aimed at reducing barriers to education for low-income residents.

 

“For me, as a single mom, $1,500 is a lot of money, when I’m raising my child on my own, and trying to pay my rent, so Fresh Start has been really amazing for me,” said Powell, who is back to working full time at an early child care center while completing her coursework at Harold Washington. “Community college has been a game-changer, not only for me, but for my child,” Powell added.

 

The passage of the federal Build Back Better Act by the House on Friday was bittersweet for officials at City Colleges of Chicago, who learned last month a proposal that would have made community colleges across the U.S. tuition free was cut from the roughly $2 trillion social safety net and climate bill.

 

As championed by President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden — a longtime community college professor — the move to make community colleges across the U.S. tuition free is viewed by supporters as imperative for students from middle- and lower-income families, many of whom are finding it increasingly difficult to pay for a higher education degree without incurring enormous debt.

When City Colleges of Chicago Chancellor Juan Salgado heard last month the tuition free community college proposal had been cut, he said he was “not just surprised, but I was deeply disappointed.”

 

While City Colleges offer several tuition free programs for qualifying students, including high-achieving recent Chicago Public School graduates, not all students benefit, Salgado said.

 

“Community colleges are in every community, rural, urban and suburban, all across the United States of America, in all of its nooks and crannies,” Salgado said. “There is momentum afloat that did not exist before, and the stake is in the ground, and it’s going to stay there.”

 

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