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UIC sweetens the pot for Chicago Star Scholars

Every little bit helps when it comes to the struggle parents face in putting kids through college while staying “out of the poor house,” as Mayor Rahm Emanuel put it.

That’s the apparent concept behind a new partnership with the University of Illinois at Chicago that will sweeten the pot for at least 250 winners of the Chicago Star Scholarship. That’s Emanuel’s plan to offer two years of free City Colleges tuition to students who graduate from Chicago Public high schools with a B average and score at least 21 on both the math and English sections of the ACT.

UIC upped the ante by offering guaranteed admission and at least $5,000 — $2,500 a year for two years’ tuition toward a bachelor’s degree — to any Chicago Star scholar who transfers to UIC after graduating from City Colleges with an associate’s degree and a 3.0 average. That’s in addition to any other financial aid.

UIC Chancellor Michael Amiridis acknowledged that the average UIC student pays $17,000 a year in tuition and fees alone. That’s not counting the cost of books, supplies and room and board, if they’re not commuting from home.

At that rate, UIC’s offer is less than 15 percent of the tuition bill.

Pressed on whether that’s the best the university can do to lighten the load for Chicago Star Scholars, Amiridis pointed to the state budget stalemate between Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democratic legislative leaders over Rauner’s demand for pro-business, anti-union reforms.

“Under the current circumstances, it is” the best UIC can do, Amiridis said.

“Keep in mind that our agreement specifies that this is minimum. We’re saying at least 250 students and at least $2,500 [a year per student]. We have a two-year window between the [time when the] first students coming here that will allow us to fundraise privately in order to raise more money. It may be more. It depends how much money we’ll be able to raise from private sources.”

And how can a state-funded, land-grant university afford to do anything when there is no state budget?

“Different buckets. By taking administrative money and, in some cases, redirecting it. By also taking some financial aid money that we had available and putting them in this direction and by using some private funds as well,” the chancellor said.

At a news conference at UIC that also included embattled University of Illinois President Timothy Killeen, Emanuel tried to put the best possible spin on UIC’s offer.

He said the “package” of free City Colleges tuition and UIC grants could be worth up to $45,000 toward a four-year degree — with Pell grants and other loans and grants on top of that.

“A thousand kids applied in a short window. Eight hundred fifty-five or just shy of that took it. And when you meet with the parents and meet with the kids, a number of them were crying because this really was the difference between them going to school or not,” the mayor said.

Two years ago, the University of Chicago offered to eliminate loans from the financial aid packages of Chicago students admitted to the university. The so-called UChicago Promise also offered to waive application fees and offered mentoring programs for aspiring college students.

Northwestern stepped up with a plan to help outstanding CPS students from needy families prepare for college and gain admission to “selective colleges and universities.”

Now the mayor plans to challenge them to offer Chicago Star Scholars even more money than UIC can afford to give.

“That means to all of the other colleges and universities in the city. Now that we have one, I’ll be coming and knocking on your door about your responsibility to the kids of Chicago,” Emanuel said.

“Let me say this about what I know about sales: When you get your first sale, numbers two, three and four are easier.”

The U of I has had its share of negative headlines lately with the email scandal and the resignations that followed.

But Tuesday was a day for the university to shine — at least in Emanuel’s eyes.

“It would be easy to step back, observe the problem, study the problem, have a couple papers written on the problem, have a symposium on the problem, discuss what people should do about the problem and then go for a break and have a cup of coffee,” Emanuel said.

“But the University of Illinois and the UIC particularly stepped forward and said, ‘We want to be integrated into the city of Chicago. We want to be the gateway’” to the middle class.