In Chicago’s Albany Park neighborhood, Saray spent the 2020-21 school year navigating the everyday challenges of a first-year college student: balancing studies and social interactions, learning how to manage her time with greater independence, and tackling initial courses in her chosen discipline (for her: pursuing a Nursing degree).
But she also had a whole slate of challenges that many college students experience but many others do not: figuring out the complexities of a university and parsing financial aid policies as the first in her family to attend college, and helping care for four younger siblings while her parents juggled work schedules and financial stressors. All this in a global pandemic, which made even “everyday” challenges much more daunting. Through it all, she persevered – and excelled.
Growth in postsecondary education for CPS graduates
Saray isn’t alone in her determination or success. In steadily increasing numbers, Chicago Public Schools students are planning for, pursuing, and succeeding in postsecondary education.
At the same time, students face complicated and unfamiliar challenges to obtaining their desired postsecondary credentials and careers. Chief among them: rising educational and personal costs, multi-faceted family responsibilities, and the continued fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Resources for seniors graduating during the pandemic
In response, CFF developed the Compassion Fund’s postsecondary access program, partnering with CPS Office of College and Career Success (OCCS) to provide resources supporting graduating seniors (and those recently graduated) beginning in spring 2020 and throughout the 2020-21 school year. The power of timely, targeted emergency aid is well-documented, especially for students from backgrounds of limited financial means. Oftentimes, a few hundred dollars can mean the difference between a student matriculating directly to a postsecondary institution or stalling (and, more often than not, permanently discontinuing) their educational journey.
Students and the school communities who support them have navigated an array of challenges, meeting COVID-era transitions to postsecondary education with resilience, flexibility, and determination. Educators and CPS leaders responded to student needs identifying and expanding the needed, targeted supports. Philanthropic partners including Crown Family Philanthropies, PepsiCo, and Fifth Third Bank Foundation contributed college success funding – emphasizing equity, empathy, and rapid-responsiveness in their generosity.
CPS Counselors, College & Career Specialists, and Network and Central Office staff worked nimbly, building a nomination system and aid application review process from scratch. CFF contributed fundraising, project management, and financial expertise to assemble necessary resources and get them to the students who needed them most.
The results were remarkable – at a macro level, 338 students received an average of $432 in emergency financial relief. These funds provided laptops for students who suddenly had to learn remotely when they’d planned to utilize on-campus resources, bus tickets for student transportation to orientations and move-in days, and covered mandatory enrollment fees or other financial hurdles to students’ education.
Saray was one of these students. Graduating in 2020 with a successful high school record, she’d been admitted to her first choice school – North Park University, located only a few short blocks from her family’s home. But then the pandemic hit, and money became even more scarce in her household. A relatively small balance (at least compared to the overall cost of attendance) of $1,008 remained after her financial aid package. Even with a monthly payment plan, this burden felt nearly insurmountable.
Throughout her summer before college and into her freshman year, Saray maintained contact with staff at her CPS high school, and with “Ms. Jenny,” the College & Career Specialist supporting postsecondary efforts at her school. Hearing of the financial obstacles to Saray’s postsecondary plans, this team encouraged her to apply for CFF’s postsecondary success funds, and then connected her with the additional resources from the Continued Transition program. It’s hard to say who smiled widest – Saray, her mother, or Ms. Jenny – when they saw her bursar balance’s updated total: $0. A few weeks later, Saray even received a refund of the payment they’d already cobbled together for their original installment plan. With these funds, she covered the cost of a textbook and online fees for another class – yet another expense she had yet to figure out how to pay.
OCCS devoted significant time and resources to these efforts, and simultaneously collaborated with CFF to get additional funds to students, creating an initiative directing additional advising and financial support to a cohort of schools, thanks to the generous donation of another longtime CFF partner. OCCS’ Continued Transition program also garnered positive results, especially in re-engaging students who’d indicated plans to attend college but hadn’t immediately matriculated in the fall of 2020.
Addressing the details for success at scale
Meeting diverse and specific needs is messy, complicated work. Making this large-scale postsecondary success a reality for students involved educators and administrators tracking packages across Chicagoland to help students locate their pre-loaded debit cards, problem-solving for families with unstable and shifting financial circumstances, and anticipating unique needs of transient populations such as Students in Temporary Living Situations (STLS). In more than one instance, someone had to meet or reroute USPS deliveries.
Impact on postsecondary options and experiences
All of this labor and dedication provided invaluable support, advising, and personal connection points — vital to encouraging students, caring for their social and emotional well-being, and helping them navigate a complicated life-transition in an unfamiliar landscape. But the impact went beyond advice and encouragement thanks to the generosity of our philanthropic partners. Meeting needs both social-emotional and practical/financial has the potential to dramatically improve students’ educational and professional trajectories. For hundreds of CPS ’20 graduates, our philanthropic partners recognized and supported that transformative potential firsthand.
Thanks to our partners’ continued generosity, these enhanced supports are again available to CPS students graduating in 2021. Having seen the immense impact of these postsecondary success funds for our alumni, we hope to replicate and expand this initiative in years to come.
Interested in supporting CPS students’ continued success?