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Debt forgiveness plan launched for more than 21,000 former City Colleges students

“Fresh Start” is a four-year program to help former City Colleges students who left in good academic standing to return, finish their degree and leave debt-free.

Kennedy-King College
Students who left City Colleges mired in school debt can now return, earn their degrees and wipe out that debt.
Sun-Times file

More than 21,000 City Colleges students who dropped out over the last decade because they couldn’t afford tuition and fees could clear their $17.7 million in debt and return to “finish what they started,” under an innovative mayoral program unveiled Tuesday.

Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel pioneered the Chicago Star Scholarship that guaranteed free City Colleges tuition to any Chicago Public Schools graduate with a “B” average.

Now, Mayor Lori Lightfoot has “Fresh Start,” a four-year college debt forgiveness program beginning this fall and continuing through 2023 tailor-made to help City Colleges play a pivotal role in Chicago’s economic comeback from the havoc wreaked by the pandemic.

At a news conference at Harold Washington College, Lightfoot and City Colleges Chancellor Juan Salgado said it was high time to offer an economic life raft to more than 21,000 students “in good academic standing” who dropped out over the last decade simply because they had fallen hopelessly behind in paying their tuition and fees.

Lightfoot called it “something I know very well personally, having come out of my under-grad career” at the University of Michigan “with a mountain of debt.”

“No Chicagoan should be forced to fall so far behind while pursuing the very thing that can propel them to a stable, middle-class lifestyle and out of poverty,” the mayor said.

City Colleges of Chicago Chancellor Juan Salgado speaks during a press conference at Harold Washington College Tuesday afternoon, where he was joined by Mayor Lori Lightfoot. They were announcing a new City Colleges debt-forgiveness program called “Fresh Start.”
City Colleges of Chicago Chancellor Juan Salgado speaks during a press conference at Harold Washington College Tuesday afternoon, where he was joined by Mayor Lori Lightfoot. They were announcing a new City Colleges debt-forgiveness program called “Fresh Start.”
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Salgado was asked how a City Colleges system with a history of financial trouble can afford to write off $17.7 million worth of debt.

“This is debt that has already been written off by our institution. Debt that, quite frankly, is not likely to be collected in the future,” he said.

Salgado said some of the 21,000 students eligible for the program “have as little as one course or one semester left” to obtain their degree.

Latil Willis is one of the beneficiaries.

She was attending Harold Washington College in the fall of 2018 — while “working two full-time jobs” — but became “overwhelmed” by the load she was carrying. She dropped a few classes, but “missed the tuition refund deadline and ended up accumulating debt she was still responsible” for paying off.

Willis said she always dreamed of earning a business degree and having a career in fashion. She has longed to “set an example” for her four-month old son “so that he can see me go to college and know that it’s possible for him as well.”

That’s why she was “beyond excited” to learn about Fresh Start.

“I will finally be able to go back in the classroom and work towards my degree,” she said.

Lightfoot portrayed Fresh Start as the latest chapter in the war on poverty she launched before the pandemic made it infinitely more difficult.

Under the plan, half of a student’s outstanding debt would be forgiven if they remain enrolled and make “satisfactory academic progress” through the first term.

The rest would be wiped off the books when they graduate — either with an associate degree or an advanced or basic certificate.

The 21,000 eligible students are 51% Black and 34% Hispanic. They come from neighborhoods that have borne the brunt of the coronavirus because of what Lightfoot has called “institutional racism” and systemic inequities made worse by the pandemic.

The registration deadline is Aug. 20. Returning students must: enroll in at least one credit course; pay a one-time, non-refundable $75 reinstatement fee; meet with advisors to develop plans to support their academic and financial goals; complete the FAFSA federal student aid form, if eligible, by an Aug. 1 deadline; satisfy new payment arrangements, either through a payment plan or financial aid; and remain enrolled for the current term while maintaining “satisfactory academic progress.”

“The intent here ... is to make sure that we’re supporting our students in their financial planning. Oftentimes, it is the great impediment that stops our students in their tracks,” Salgado said.

If the tuition refund deadline is an issue for so many students, why not just eliminate that deadline so students don’t go into debt in the first place?

“I don’t think it works that way. We’re serious about students paying. ... It doesn’t help anybody to not have a payment deadline,” Salgado said.

“I don’t believe that we should just be turning a blind eye, then seeing the consequences later. That’s why you have such high student debt. All across this country, students are making choices without a real plan. We’re changing that at City Colleges. We’ve changed that already.”