Education Secretary Arne Duncan praises Harper's Promise program

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan says a program at Harper College that promises high school students two years of free education for being good students could serve as a nationwide model for colleges that work with communities to promote college readiness and career success.

Duncan stopped by as part of a back-to-school bus tour that celebrates and examines how different states are working to address access to education from early childhood to college. He was part of a panel that discussed the school's Promise Program rewarding students with free college education for keeping good attendance, making average grades and serving their community during all four years in high school.

The goal is to attract "scrappy" C-average students who are hardworking and have good attendance but who may have thought college was beyond their means.

"Everyone knows a high school diploma is critical; you have to get that, but it's insufficient. And if you just stop going to school after high school there are very few jobs out there," Duncan said. "The goal is really for every hardworking student around the nation to make community college free."

Harper began recruiting high school freshmen for the program with the start of this school year.

Palatine High School freshman Tyler Williams Smith is on track to participate in the program and wants to become an electrical engineer.

"This gives me the opportunity to help out my mom by her not having to pay for me in my first years of college," Williams Smith said.

His mom, Tanya Williams, was on the panel with Duncan. She says she's excited about the opportunity.

"I can't explain to you how relieved I am that he's going to make those benchmarks," she said. "I'm so happy the board came up with the easy attainable benchmark of a 'scrappy C,' so he's going to do it."

Harper spokesman Phil Burdick says school officials expect 10 percent of high school students who sign up to successfully complete the program. He says with most students who haven't made it through similar programs across the country, it's showing up to class that is the biggest obstacle.

"It's not the grades, it's not the community service. It's the attendance," Burdick said.

Burdick says Harper's program needs to raise $10 million by the time this year's high school freshmen begin their first year of college. On Wednesday, the program received a $1 million donation from Vince and Pat Foglia. They are Lake Barrington residents who have made donations to other suburban organizations including Barrington's Good Shepard Hospital and the Foglia YMCA in Lake Zurich.

The Promise Program has received $7 million so far from all local private donors, says Harper Chief Advancement Officer Laura Brown.

Duncan said that while a few colleges across the nation have developed programs similar to Harper's Promise Program, not all are as successful as Harper's is expected to be.

The school worked with businesses and the high school districts in its service area to develop stringent standards that it hopes will help students develop the work habits they need to succeed in college and life, with the promise of a reward for their diligence.

"This is definitely more the exception than the norm," Duncan said of Harper's program.

And as Harper's program is used as a model for community colleges across the country, Duncan says the implications will span more than just access to college.

"The goal is not just educational attainment, it's really to end poverty," he said. "Kids haven't done anything wrong; they lack the chance to go to college."

  U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan talks with high schoolers including Russel Wagner, 14, of Palatine High School, right, at Harper College. Duncan was at Harper Wednesday when the school was presented with a $1 million donation to its Promise Scholar Program. Mark Welsh/
  U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan talks with members of Harper College on Wednesday. He was there to support its Promise Scholar Program. Mark Welsh/
  U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan talks with members of Harper College on Wednesday as Ivette Castanon, 14, of Palatine High School and Ken Ender, president of Harper, look on. Duncan was at Harper to support its Promise Scholar Program. Mark Welsh/
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