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New Program Covers Undocumented Chicago Students' College Costs

It's hard enough for low-income students to figure out how to pay for college, but add to that being undocumented and shut out of federal aid, and the challenge is even greater.

A new program in Chicago will help about 70 high school graduates who are undocumented attend a four-year college in the fall with a $12,000 annual scholarship. Those who choose to attend one of the program's 14 partnering colleges will also have the gap in college costs covered.

The Pritzker Access Scholarship program, funded by the Pritzker Traubert Family Foundation  and the Pritzker Foundation, is designed to ensure DREAMers enrolled in the Noble Network of Charter Schools in Chicago will be able to attend college. The scholarship will be available to Noble seniors who have qualified for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (a temporary federal relief from deportation).

About 90 percent of students who graduate from the 16 high schools in the open-enrollment Noble Network matriculate to college. The campuses are located in high-need neighborhoods and nearly all students are minority and low-income.

Matt Niksch, the chief college officer for Noble, says about 75 percent of their students qualify for Pell Grant and have access to federal loans. For those who are undocumented and can't apply, college options have been limited.

"It's a really unjust situation," says Niksch. "We have a strong culture of college-going in our school. We tell students if they work hard, study, and excel, they will have opportunities, but this breaks down for undocumented students and it is acutely painful."

The new scholarship is aimed at "not leaving students in the lurch" by giving them financial help and support to pursue a degree, says Niksch. In addition to the money, the program will provide a mentor to work with the students through their transition to college to help them overcome possible barriers to completion.

During the first semester, if students fail an exam, they may conclude they don't belong on campus, says Niksch. A counselor will help them work through the setback to realize: "It's not about who I am, but what I've done," he says.

Similar to the Posse Foundation model, the new scholarship program hopes to connect students who come from the Noble high schools once they are on the various partners college campuses. Those colleges participating in the program have a history of working with students from Noble and are interested in supporting the undocumented students on their campuses, adds Niksch.  Most of the partner schools are small, liberal arts institutions, such as Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, and Wasbash College in Crawfordsville, Ind.

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