The campuses of Chicago’s City Colleges don’t have nice leafy quads to debate the biggest issues facing our society. Nor are there “Greektowns” with fraternity and sorority houses where students must balance the time they devote to books and beer bongs.
Many City Colleges students cram classes in between minimum-wage shifts, scrimping to pay for what they hope will be a brighter future. The only thing that’s non-negotiable for them is whether they’ll get the financial aid they depend on to stay in school and succeed against steep odds.
But the City Colleges have stiffed an untold number of students at the seven campuses across Chicago for weeks, according to emails from administrators and interviews with students.
“Everybody is getting screwed over,” student Anas Aboun, 21, told me Tuesday at Wilbur Wright College on the city’s Northwest Side. “I can’t pay for college with financial aid f—— me over.”
Aboun, whose family is from Syria, said he goes to school full time and also works 15 to 20 hours a week in the produce department of a grocery store, where he’s paid $10 an hour. After taxes, his weekly paycheck sometimes is little more than $100, he said.
And Aboun said Tuesday morning he has not yet seen any of the $2,500 in financial aid he’s supposed to get from City Colleges this semester.
I heard similar stories this week from his Wright College classmates as well as from a student at Kennedy-King College on the South Side — “I’m maxing out my credit cards” — and downtown at Harold Washington College.
“A lot of people are upset because they rely on that money,” said James Anderson, an 18-year-old college freshman and Epic Academy Charter High School graduate.
Part-time Harold Washington College student Michael Emmanuel Hill II said he’s owed $2,300 in financial aid. The situation, he said, is endangering the 51-year-old veteran’s plan to pursue a master’s in social work on a full-time basis.
“I came back here to get retooled, and I’m afraid to lose my house,” Hill said. “A lot of students have dropped out because they have no money.”
Complaints have been met with a series of unmet promises from City Colleges administrators, according to emails students forwarded to me.
City Colleges was to start processing initial payments for the semester on Oct. 2. Nearly three weeks later on Oct. 21, administrators wrote to “apologize for a delay that has occurred” for unspecified reasons. They said they “project that students will begin to receive funds starting” on Oct. 27.
On Oct. 30, though, another email to students said, “On behalf of Chief Financial Officer Joyce Carson, City Colleges of Chicago deeply apologizes for the unacceptable further delay.”
In that message, administrators said the payments “should” arrive in the coming days. Again, no clear reason for the delay was given: “Steps are being taken to avoid these technical difficulties next semester.”
Finally, in another email from Carson on Monday evening, she told students “the first disbursement of [federal] Pell grants has been refunded” and the second payments for the semester, scheduled to start going out on Nov. 6, should get to aid recipients within a couple weeks.
“Students should expect to receive refunds starting the end of this week and continuing over the next 14 days,” wrote Carson, whose annual salary was nearly $180,000 a year as of January, according to the City Colleges website.
There was a somewhat different version of events written on the dry erase board in Harold Washington College’s financial-aid office: “The first disbursement which was scheduled for Oct. 2, 2015 was postponed due to changes in tuition. At this time we do NOT have a set date for disbursement.”
In a statement to the Chicago Sun-Times on Tuesday, a City Colleges spokeswoman said the delays were “caused by the use of a new IT system” and had not violated federal guidelines. The spokeswoman said 90 percent of recipients “now have their first Pell disbursement, and the second Pell disbursement process is underway.”
After so many similar promises have proven false, students were understandably unconvinced.
“I’m still waiting for my check,” said Kasem Kasem, a 19-year-old Wright College student who grew up in Palestine.
There are many issues worth protesting. These students said they will continue to suffer largely in silence rather than organizing protests.
“We’re too busy,” said Aboun, the student who works part time at a grocery. “We have to work to pay for our school.”