As a rising Chicago Public Schools senior with a 3.0 GPA, Jairo Melendez hadn’t been sure he’d be able to afford college.

He was the oldest of three children of immigrant parents, and would be the first generation to pursue a college degree. But all five colleges he was accepted to stipulated significant out-of-pocket expenses.

That’s when his Kelvyn Park High School counselor recommended he check out National Louis University, which had just launched its unique Pathways program, designed to make college both affordable and achievable for more low-income, urban students.

“I had to ask myself, how am I going to pay off college? I was working  third shift at a factory at the time to help my family,” says the 20-year-old, of Logan Square, now a junior studying business administration at NLU, with plans to go to law school.

“What I liked about National Louis was the tuition was so affordable, it offers a possibility of graduating with no college debt,” he says.

NLU’s Pathways is being credited with propelling the downtown college to an astounding No. 2 national ranking for growth in student applicants over the past decade, recently reported by MSN Money and 24/7 Wall Street.

Applicants to the school increased 1667.4 percent between 2006 and 2016 — second only to Grand Canyon University in Arizona, which saw a 4210.5 percent jump. The data, from the National Center for Education Statistics, finds only one other Illinois school in the top 10: Roosevelt University, at #9, saw a 331.2 percent jump.

“Our undergraduate numbers were fairly flat, and the application growth has been so significant since Pathways. We quadrupled our numbers from year 1 to year 2, and grew almost 10-fold from year 1 to year 3,” says NLU Vice President of Strategic Initiatives Aarti Dhupelia, who was CPS’ chief officer of college and career success, when hired away to launch Pathways.

“I was seeing CPS ACT scores, GPA’s and graduation and college enrollment rates growing; yet college graduation rates unchanged. It’s when I realized colleges needed to do something different, play a bigger role in solving the college completion challenge,” she says.

In a rapidly evolving U.S. job market, where a college degree is increasingly necessary, universities nationwide wrestle with raising their enrollment and retention rates among diverse populations, amidst rising tuitions that leave college out of reach.

With its $10,000 annual tuition, smart technology learning software and an individual success coach, Pathways has been lauded by education groups such as the Partnership for College Completion, and New Profit, for designing a model that has addressed primary barriers for such students.

With federal and state grant aid, the $10,000 tuition can, for many, be reduced to zero. Smart technology designed for adaptive learning allows students to proceed at their own pace, completing each learning module — with additional instruction when needed — before moving on to the next. A support system comes via the success coach.

Pathways, serving students with high school GPAs of 2.0 to 3.0, currently has 800 students enrolled.

“We try to serve kids other institutions overlook,” NLU President Nivine Megahed said.

“When we started looking at this four years ago — at the low rate at which students were attending college and the terrible completion rates — it was just clear to us there was a moral imperative to figure out how to address this issue,” she said.

“Within the next decade we’re going to need 60 percent of the population to be college educated in order to have enough talent for the workforce. We’re below 40 percent, and the area where the least amount of progress is being made is with first-generation, minority and underserved students,” she added. “We want this model not only to scale, but to be exemplary, to help move the dial for them.”

Last month, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation awarded the data-driven Pathways program — continuously testing and improving curriculum and wraparound strategies — with a $1.1 million grant.

NLU sophomore Jazlene Alize, 20, was drawn to Pathways because of the cost and the strong, individual student support.

“I didn’t want to be too far away from my family, and didn’t want to have to work two jobs to be able to afford college,” said Rodriguez, who grew up in Humboldt Park, and graduated Sullivan High School with a 3.3 GPA. She’s studying political science and psychology.

“Pathways feels like home, like a family. We all know each other’s stories,” said Rodriguez, raised by her mother and grandmother. “I’ll be the first in my family to go to college, or finish high school. I just can’t wait to graduate, to go far and to break that education chain, because I have a passion for it.”