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Bottom Line: Helping low-income, first-generation college students succeed

Mateo Avila, 22, of Little Village, with three of his former counselors at Bottom Line, a relatively new Chicago nonprofit that helps low-income, first-generation students get into and graduate college. Hannah Lee (left), Margy Brill and Estrella Arauz. | Provided photo

For Mateo Avila and Marquise Linnear, gun violence was the norm, growing up in Chicago’s Little Village and Austin neighborhoods.

Linnear, at age 12, lost his father, shot by assailants in South Lawndale. His wife and son rushed to the scene to find him dead in the street.

Avila was confronted with a gun the first time at age 14. By 19, he’d been shot at five times, and had a gun pointed at his head three other times.

Avila, now 22 and a junior majoring in Journalism at Northern Illinois University; and Linnear, 19, a freshman math major at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, are the faces of neighborhoods plagued by the gun violence millions marched against last weekend.

But they are also the faces of Bottom Line, a relatively new Chicago nonprofit helping to ensure youth like Avila and Linnear reach the potential for greatness on display last weekend — through a college education.

Bottom Line, a new Chicago nonprofit that helps low-income, first-generation students get into and graduate college, helped Marquise Linnear, 19, of the Austin neighborhood, get into University of Illinois at Urbana, where he is a freshman. | Provided pho
Bottom Line, a new Chicago nonprofit that helps low-income, first-generation students get into and graduate college, helped Marquise Linnear, 19, of the Austin neighborhood, get into University of Illinois at Urbana, where he is a freshman. | Provided photo

“I knew my grades were up to par, because I had a 4.3 weighted GPA, but I knew there was no way I could afford college without scholarships,” said Linnear, a 2017 graduate of the Chicago Public Schools’ Westinghouse College Prep.

“That meant I had to put forth the best application I could — personal statement, essays, financial aid forms and all of that — and a college application isn’t easy when you only have yourself to rely on,” Linnear said “My mother didn’t know anything about it, and you’re not going to get a lot of help from school counselors when there are only 10 for several hundred students.”

Marquise Linnear, 19, of Austin, at his graduation from Westinghouse College Prep. His aunt, Margaret McNeal (left), his mother, Tyesha Linnear, and his grandmother, Everlean Rhodes. | Provided photo
Marquise Linnear, 19, of Austin, at his graduation from Westinghouse College Prep. His aunt, Margaret McNeal (left), his mother, Tyesha Linnear, and his grandmother, Everlean Rhodes. | Provided photo

Luckily for Linnear, a Westinghouse counselor sent an email about Bottom Line, which had arrived in Chicago in 2014, after working the past 20 years in Boston to assist low-income, first-generation students with both getting into then graduating college.

Bottom Line set up shop in New York seven years ago, choosing as its third offshoot a city where only one out of five teens are earning bachelor’s degrees within 10 years of starting CPS high schools.

“We are a bridge between a student’s potential and the possibilities,” said Martha Elder Khanna, director of development for the organization now working with over 1,000 students from nearly every city neighborhood, from families with average income of $25,000.

“All of our students who apply to our program are smart. They have it in them to go to college, but they just need the roadmap, and the guidance that students with more resources get, in order to succeed,” she said.

The privately funded nonprofit works with colleges in each state — the 11 in Illinois include U. of I., DePaul, Illinois State, Northern and Western universities. It shepherds students’ college applications, with the goal of ensuring limited college debt. Then for up to six years, it follows students through graduation, assigning a personal counselor that stays in close contact, trouble shooting and referring when help is needed, even visiting them on campus six times a year.

Compared to the national average — 12 percent of low-income students are achieving college degrees — 81 percent of Bottom Line students in Boston and New York are obtaining degrees. The organization will see its first graduating cohorts this year, but has seen a 90 percent college persistence rate.

“One of the No. 1 factors is financial aid and affordability, because that’s what we see: students take out so many loans — bad loans, unsubsidized or private — then leave without a degree, and can’t pay them back,” Khanna said. “We guide our students in making the affordable choice that will not keep them in debt forever, and allow them to continue college.”

About 500 Chicago youth are on the waiting list for the organization’s highly personalized in-college support services, tailored to each student.

Mateo Avila, 22, of Little Village, with his family at NIU’s Top Shelf Sports show, where he is associate producer. His mother, Saphia Avila (left), his father, Ramiro Avila, and his sister, Adriana Avila. | Provided photo
Mateo Avila, 22, of Little Village, with his family at NIU’s Top Shelf Sports show, where he is associate producer. His mother, Saphia Avila (left), his father, Ramiro Avila, and his sister, Adriana Avila. | Provided photo

Unlike Linnear, Avila hadn’t always planned on going to college. It was senior year when a counselor at CPS’ Social Justice High School asked him why he hadn’t applied, telling him his 2.9 GPA and great ACT scores could get him to college.

“My initial thought was that I was just going to start working. My father had been working two jobs for 25 years. It’s all I knew,” Avila said.

With pestering from the counselor, Avila applied to five colleges and got into four of them, one of them NIU. His counselor referred him to Bottom Line, and he says the one-on-one counseling he’s received these past four years have made all the difference.

“They’ve been my lifeline,” he said. “They do so much for the students the work with. They’re just incredible, and without them, I don’t know if I’d still be in college right now, looking at graduating next year.”