|College for free, but not a free ride; Volunteering a key part of program that pays tuition|
|Jan 28, 2009||Chicago Tribune|
By Carolyn Starks
Carli Wilson's savings from a part-time job in a clothing store are a drop in the bucket compared with her looming college tuition costs, but the high school senior no longer has to worry about finding the money.
She and hundreds of others in McHenry County will attend college next fall for free.
Wilson, a senior at Huntley High School, plans to participate in a new McHenry County College program that offers paid tuition for two years to graduating seniors in exchange for volunteer hours. More than $3.5 million in pledges has been raised from three donors to fund the first year.
"I just think it is really cool that they were so nice to give that much money out to make our lives much easier," said Wilson, an honors student who wants to study math education and theater direction.
In light of the current economic crisis, parents and students say the tuition program, called MCC Promise, is an economic lifesaver. The prospect of paying for college is daunting to many.
"It really couldn't come at a better time," college spokeswoman Christina Haggerty said. "The timing is very helpful to people who thought college was not an option for them and for people who in the past may not have needed help."
The assistance is available to students regardless of economic status.
Tuition for a full-time student averages from $4,500 to $5,500 or more a year at MCC, depending on the course load, officials said.
In return for two years of tuition-free education, each student is required to volunteer for 16 hours each semester. The college has partnered with the United Way to help match students with local organizations that need help.
Colleges and universities increasingly are launching programs to help students stay in school, offering additional financial aid, work-study jobs, even eliminating tuition in some cases.
For example, Oakton Community College in Des Plaines recently announced that five career programs will be tuition-free to local residents who have lost a full-time job since last year. The 16-week semester courses are in such programs as computer diagnostics, project management to "green" marketing, manufacturing, and pharmaceutical preparation.
"We felt by creating these five specific programs that can be completed in just one semester it was a more substantive way to address what unemployed people are going through," said college spokesman Bill Paige.
MCC thought an extra effort was needed. The Friends of McHenry County College, a non-profit organization, modeled its program after a similar one in Michigan, Haggerty said.
Mike Luecht, chief executive officer of a real estate development company, pledged $1 million. He was inspired, he said, to help young students by his own struggle to pay his way through college. He attended three schools over eight years to earn a bachelor's degree.
The Lake in the Hills resident said he has spoken to several high school seniors about the program and was told they now know they are going to college. A couple of months ago, they weren't sure, he said.
"With all that's going on with the economy, access to college education should not be one of the things that is lost for today's high school graduates," Luecht said. "While college may not be for everybody, access to college has to be."
Vince Foglia, another of the principal donors, is chairman and chief executive officer of Sage Products Inc. of Cary. The third major donor is remaining anonymous.
The program will pay tuition for high school seniors graduating from a McHenry County College high school district. They also must live in the district and be full-time students pursuing a two-year associate's degree.
Last fall, the college had 1,500 new students. About half were full time. Officials estimate the new tuition program could benefit 400 to 600 students beginning in the fall.
There are no grade-point-average requirements to apply. But a student must maintain a 2.0 or better GPA while enrolled at MCC.
To ensure the program continues, college officials have launched a campaign to raise $300,000 annually.
Since Luecht and the two other donors stepped forward, the college has received several more gifts. Officials are confident they will be able to sustain the effort, Haggerty said.
Huntley High School senior Samantha Stephens thanked Luecht personally after he spoke at her school. She told him that attending college was not an option -- until he offered to help pay.
"I would have had to pay back a lot of loans, so I never would have thought of going to college without this program," she said.
The McHenry County College Promise program
McHenry County College has a main campus at 8900 U.S. Highway 14 in Crystal Lake, as well as several satellite locations. The college offers six associate's degrees and 17 associate of applied science degrees.