By Madhu Krishnamurthy
For some suburban high school students from struggling low-income families, the prospect of a college education can be a distant dream.
That's how Carina Bailon felt as the eldest of three siblings and the daughter of Mexican immigrants who never finished school themselves.
"They didn't know how to guide me," said Bailon, 19, of Des Plaines, a graduate of Elk Grove High School.
Bailon is the first in her family to attend college. She is pursuing a bachelor's degree in elementary education or human services at National Louis University through its new Pathways program. Her tuition is covered primarily through the Illinois' Monetary Award Program and federal Pell grants.
"I didn't think I was going to get accepted because usually the universities look at the ACT (results)," said Bailon, who scored a 16 on the college entrance test -- well below the 21 composite score considered college ready -- and received several rejections from universities.
NLU's program doesn't require ACT or SAT test scores for admission. Students are accepted with a 2.0 grade-point average or higher.
The university, which has campuses in Chicago, Elgin, Lisle and Wheeling, designed the program to help lower-income students overcome barriers to attaining a four-year bachelor's degree. It serves first-generation college-goers right out of high school -- 92 percent of those enrolled are low-income students, while 72 percent are the first in their families to attend college. About 70 percent of students enrolled are getting a full ride.
Tuition for the program is $10,000 yearly, which students could get covered through federal and state grants.
"We don't ask for SAT or ACT because there is a lot of research out there that says it is not predictive of college success," said Aarti Dhupelia, NLU vice president of strategic initiatives. "We also want to include a broader range of students who might not have the opportunity elsewhere because we believe we have the right supports to get them through college."
Affordability is only part of the challenge. Many students face homelessness, hunger, depression, anxiety and competing priorities, such as multiple jobs and caring for family members or younger siblings.
Pathways started in 2015 after NLU President Nivine Megahed reviewed national data on college completion rates for low-income and minority students. It showed thousands of students weren't enrolled in college or completing it. Half of Illinois' students come from low-income families.
"If you don't find a way to provide opportunity for that huge part of our population, the economic impact for us as a community, region, nation is unfathomable," Megahed said. "We are changing the game on how people think about undergraduate education."
Closing that gap required creative thinking, such as creating flexible schedules and providing individualized supports, she said.
Students attend classes twice a week and complete much of their coursework online using technology allowing them to work on a module until they master it. They can attain degrees in business administration, applied communications, psychology, human services, early childhood practice, and early childhood, elementary and special education. This fall, Pathways programs in computer sciences and information systems will be added.
Rolling Meadows High School graduate Reyna Cortes, 19, said the program's blended learning model helps her juggle a full-time class schedule with three jobs as a student ambassador, Target associate and child-care worker for the Rolling Meadows Park District.
"My challenge is time management," said Cortes, who is studying criminal justice and is involved with the police Explorer program.
Career readiness coursework, such as writing a professional resume or LinkedIn profile and mock interviews with industry partners, is built into the curriculum in the first two years. In junior and senior years, students participate in internships or service projects. The program offers success coaches, smaller class sizes of under 30 students, and career placement for students to gain workplace experience before they graduate.
"It allows the professors to really target and differentiate their instruction so they can tailor what they are doing in the classroom and offer personalized support," Dhupelia said. "That model really prevents students from falling through the cracks."
NLU's program received a $1.1 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to help fund career services, employer engagement resources, technology, remedial education for students not college ready, and even a professional clothing closet.
In its first year, 85 students were enrolled in the program at NLU's Chicago campus. It expanded to Wheeling in 2016. Roughly 800 students are enrolled this year, including about 130 at the Wheeling campus with an overall student retention rate of 70 percent.
Officials are reaching out to suburban high schools hoping to grow the program and eventually expand to the Elgin and Lisle campuses.
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