Chicago Mayor to Wipe Out Debt for Students Who ‘Finish What They Started’ Amid COVID Recovery

July 17, 2020 Updated: July 17, 2020

Thousands of college students in Chicago will get a financial fresh start this fall to help the city recover from the pandemic lockdown that wreaked havoc on the economy.

That means over 21,000 Chicago college students who dropped out could have their debt forgiven—totaling $17.7 million—if they are willing to “finish what they started,” according to Chicago Mayor Lightfoot, who unveiled the new program on Tuesday.

Beginning this fall, the mayor’s “Fresh Start” aims to help City Colleges of Chicago play an important role in addressing the city’s economic recovery following the pandemic. The four-year program will continue through 2023.

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Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks during a press meeting outside of Wrigley Field on April 16, 2020, in Chicago, Illinois. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Students planning to attend or who dropped out of City Colleges over the last decade because they failed to pay tuition or fees but were otherwise in good academic standing will gain economic incentive to continue college.

“Many of Chicago’s students are kept from finishing college due to debt that forces them to pause their academic journey,” the mayor stated at a news conference at Harold Washington College. “With Fresh Start, former City Colleges’ students will be able to finish college debt-free, pursue their dream careers and set themselves up for success in the post-COVID economy.”

“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,” Lightfoot added. “When they’re not able to excel, we all lose.”

Some of the 21,000 eligible students “have as little as one course or one semester left” to complete their degree, City Chancellor Juan Salgado said; and half of the student’s remaining debt will be forgiven as long as they stay enrolled and their academic progress is deemed “satisfactory.”

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City Colleges of Chicago, 226 W Jackson Blvd, Chicago, IL (Screenshot/Google Maps)

“A college credential is pivotal to work for success, we all know that,” Salgado said during the conference, “especially during economic downturns.”

After a student graduates with either an associate degree or an advanced or basic certificate, their remaining debt will be cancelled.

Of those eligible for the program, 51 percent are black and 34 percent are Hispanic. Their neighborhoods were hit the hardest during the pandemic, the mayor says.

The mayor described the program as the newest development in the war on poverty that began prior to the lockdown. It follows former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago Star Scholarship, which ensures free local college tuition to Chicago Public School students who graduate with a “B” average.

Fresh Start participants will have to enroll in at least one credit course at one of the City Colleges of Chicago campuses and pay the one-time, non-refundable $75 reinstatement fee. The deadline for the program is Aug. 20.

The community college network has seven campuses in Chicago: Daley, Harold Washington, Kennedy-King, Malcolm X, Olive-Harvey, Truman, and Wright, as well as five satellite campuses. For years, City Colleges has suffered dwindling enrollment and graduation rates, which plummeted to 7 percent in 2009.

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