Harper College promises two years of free tuition

A groundbreaking plan to offer two years of free community college to qualifying high school graduates will be announced Monday by Harper College in Palatine.

To earn it, high school students — starting with this fall's freshman class — will have to aggressively stay on top of their grades, attendance and community service all four years. A slip in their performance in any area, and students lose out.

But those who do make the cut get the big reward: four consecutive semesters of free tuition, saving them, by today's rate, up to $3,892.50 a year, educators told the Daily Herald in an exclusive advance briefing on Harper's Promise Scholarship program.

Harper's free tuition campaign, which will debut with the Class of 2019 at high schools in Palatine-Schaumburg District 211, Northwest Suburban District 214 and Barrington Area Unit District 220, is part of a national shift in higher education aiming to expand access to college and produce the kind of graduates — responsible, motivated, disciplined — coveted by employers. Harper's program has businesses, not just educators, intimately involved in preparing students for the workforce. And it's unusually comprehensive in its approach, with everyone from parents to high school counselors having a role.

Harper is setting aside $5 million from its general fund reserves for the scholarships and the Harper Foundation is vowing to raise another $5 million. Local companies that partner with Harper helped set the criteria and are pledging to give hiring preference to Promise graduates. The high schools will track students' grades and absences and help the teens stay focused.

Harper President Ken Ender says the program is “not for the faint of heart,” but it's open to students of all backgrounds, no matter how much income their family makes.

“If your dad makes $100,000 or $1,000, at the end of the day, we're really working on you,” Ender said. “It's about you earning your right to participate in higher education and be a part of this community.”

Who qualifies?

In deciding who benefits from free tuition, businesses and school administrators had the “scrappy 'C' students” in mind, kids who aren't high achievers academically, but who “certainly meet the mark and a little bit more,” Ender said.

“They can work for this, and it's so much a healthier attitude for being successful professionally and personally, that you contributed to your own success, and nothing was given to you or handed to you or expected,” said Marianne Stanke, a client relations executive at accounting firm Deloitte and one of the architects of the program.

The three high school districts don't track how many students end up with college diplomas. Officials do know that about 35 percent of seniors head to Harper College.

Overall, nearly half of Harper students drop out before earning some form of credential. But Harper officials say they've designed a path where students are incentivized to stay the course.

Their goal is to turn those C students into desirable job candidates. The proof? Promise graduates will be able to show employers six years of “dedicated and consistent effort, a willingness to be challenged and service to others,” District 211 Superintendent Dan Cates said.

“We're really trying to build life skills,” said Michelé Robinson, Harper's executive leader of the Promise program. “We're trying to build the skills that really help you to be a good employee.”

'A moral obligation'

Harper reps have been visiting junior high schools, stressing to parents the need to start planning, as they are more likely to be thinking long-term than eighth-graders.

“I'm going to do all that I can to make sure my son stays in the program and gets through it,” says Tanya Williams, a single mom of two whose son, Tyler, will be a Palatine High School freshman next school year.

Money's tight for Williams, a school bus driver and massage therapist who wishes she could afford private violin lessons for her daughter. When Harper officials came to her son's school, Winston Campus Junior High, to talk about Harper Promise, Williams turned to other parents sitting next to her, amazed, “along with big smiles.”

“Dreams come true,” Tanya, 42, said.

Program officials hope that free tuition will be a game-changer for the rising number of low-income families in the Northwest suburbs, for parents who thought college was all but out of reach.

Last year, 25 Northwest suburban schools saw half or more of their students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. In 2003, there were only four such schools.

“We have a moral obligation to work to provide opportunities for kids and families, ways to earn living wages once they graduate,” said David Schuler, superintendent of District 214.

How it works

Initially, Harper expects up to 7,000 second-semester freshmen will qualify for the Promise program. As those students move through high school, Harper fully expects thousands of them to fall away, leaving maybe 300 to 600 graduates in 2019 who met the requirements all seven semesters.

What will knock out most of the teens? Not GPA, but attendance, officials say. Sophomores can miss no more than nine days of school and seniors, no more than seven.

The attendance requirement was pushed hard by the business advisers to Promise. The school representatives on the panel pushed back.

“I don't think either side was really happy with (the compromise), but they decided to live with it,” Harper spokesman Phil Burdick said.

“'Happy' is probably a strong word,” Robinson added.

Michael Alagna, a retired Nation Pizza and Foods executive, helped write the Promise standards. He said the Schaumburg manufacturer has had too much experience with employees who come to work late and take time off. For him, building responsibility into the standards was absolutely key.

“We compromised in the middle,” Alagna said. “I think the real issue is if you set false expectations for them coming out of school, to me, then they're going to fail regardless of the program.”

Hitting those marks will require a “culture shift” in Barrington District 220, where 425 high schoolers have logged more than 10 absences, Superintendent Brian Harris said. Attendance rates notably drop around spring break, when families extend their vacations, he said.

Attendance is one piece of the data high schools must track and report to Harper annually, enabling the college to budget costs. If their projections are on target, the 300 to 600 students who qualify for free tuition starting in 2019 will cost Harper $600,000 to $900,000 a year. Harper assumes some of those students will have some of their expenses covered by federal Pell and state grants.

The Harper College Educational Foundation is working to raise $5 million from donors before the first class of Promise students arrives on campus in 2019. The money will go into a quasi-endowment, allowing Harper to use the earnings and the principal to fund the program.

But the foundation is pledging to raise enough so that only the earnings on the principal are needed to cover the difference between what students get from financial aid and the cost of tuition. Last year, about 5,300 Harper students received aid totaling $24.1 million.

Promise students still must pay $500 to $700 in books and fees a semester, expenses that federal Pell grants could cover. They also must continue to meet benchmarks each semester to remain at Harper tuition-free.

Promoting Promise

Harper will send 30 administrators to act as ambassadors at Northwest suburban elementary schools. They're tasked with motivating kids to stay in school, volunteer and make the grade. Harper hasn't decided what that will look like, but each ambassador has a $3,000 programming budget. They could hold attendance contests, for instance, with pizza parties going to the winners, Ender said.

“What we're trying to do is really put some resources directly into those schools right now, trying to encourage this postsecondary thinking,” he said.

Williams, the Palatine mom, thinks getting into the program is doable, but she worries about her son falling sick and having to miss school, although a panel will review special circumstances like medical issues.

“It's such a great opportunity, and I'm so blessed to be able to participate in it,” she said. “It's a relief. It's a financial relief.”

Harper president has tried free tuition plan before

Undocumented students ineligible for free Harper tuition

  AT DAILYHERALD.COM/MORE: Harper President Ken Ender says the program is "not for the faint of heart," but it's open to students of all backgrounds, no matter how much income their family makes. Plus former students on why Harper allowed them to succeed. Bob Chwedyk/
  Harper College graduates Michelle Foerster and Melissa Ortega work with kitchen supervisor Elmer Garcia in the Nation Pizza and Foods test kitchen at the Schaumburg manufacturer. Bob Chwedyk/
  Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 Superintendent Dan Cates, meeting with high schoolers at Harper College's 2013 Latino Summit, says Promise students must demonstrate "dedicated and consistent effort, a willingness to be challenged and service to others." JOE LEWNARD/, November 2013
  From left, Harper College President Ken Ender, Barrington Unit District 220 Superintendent Brian Harris, Michael Alagna, the former COO of Nation Pizza and Foods and Northwest Suburban High School District 214 Superintendent David Schuler helped design the Promise program. JOE LEWNARD/, November 2013
  Nicole Kozodaj, with driver Brian Navas, earned a certificate in business management from Harper College and now works at Nation Pizza and Foods, a manufacturer with close ties to the Promise program. Bob Chwedyk/
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