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Chicago’s community college system has launched a student debt forgiveness program to encourage students who have dropped out to return and complete their degree or certificate.

Pat Nabong

City Colleges Offers ‘Fresh Start’ Student Debt Forgiveness Amid Pandemic

City Colleges of Chicago is trying to entice students who dropped out of the community college system before completing their degree or certificate with a new opportunity to clear their debt and return to class.

The new program announced Tuesday will waive half of a student’s outstanding debt if they re-enroll and progress through that first semester. The other half of their debt will be waived once they earn an associate’s degree or certificate. Students with outstanding debt cannot currently re-enroll and continue their education until an outstanding balance is paid.

“Students with debt are stuck,” Chancellor Juan Salgado said at a press conference. “With debt, they cannot register for courses, and they cannot complete their certificate, degree and won’t be part of the [COVID-19] recovery.”

“We are committed to helping Chicagoans erase this debt, complete a credential, and launch a career path that leads to better jobs, better pay, and upward mobility for themselves and their families.”

The community college system estimates 21,000 students can take advantage of this new program with a cumulative debt of nearly $18 million, which Chancellor Salgado says they had already written off as uncollected and will not affect their current financial situation.

The Fresh Start program comes as Chicago and the country grapples with an economic recession caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Historically, community colleges and universities see increased enrollment during economic downturns as people who become unemployed enroll to earn new certifications or learn new skills.

Read more: All of WBEZ’s coverage of the COVID-19 outbreak in Chicago and the region

“Employers are looking for them and we have to do our part to make sure we build up a ready, willing and able workforce,” said Mayor Lori Lightfoot. “Financial means should not be an impediment to making that happen.”

School leaders say its seven colleges will play a crucial role in training students in high-demand fields like transportation, distribution and logistics, and healthcare.

Most qualifying students are Black or Latinx and live in neighborhoods hit hard by the pandemic. Qualifying students must have at least a 2.0 grade point average, pass at least two-thirds of the classes they’ve taken and be on track to graduate in a timely manner. A City Colleges spokesperson says those who don’t meet those requirements can still reach out to see if there are other options to re-enroll. The program will start this fall and last through 2023.

Chicago State University launched a similar debt forgiveness program last year, called the Cougar Return. Students can qualify for debt forgiveness there if they left within the past three years, owe a balance of $1,500 or less and are close to graduation.

The program could help City Colleges of Chicago boost enrollment, which has declined by 25% since 2014, and contributed to tighter budgets over the past few years. The college system had to use the sale of its downtown headquarters to balance last year’s budget. They recently laid off 115 part-time staff and eight full-time employees after announcing the colleges are cancelling athletics, aquatics and their catering in the culinary program this upcoming school year due to the pandemic.

Students who return under the Fresh Start program must comply with a variety of rules to qualify for debt forgiveness. They must speak with an academic advisor and participate in a financial aid session. They must enroll in at least one course for credit this fall, pay a one-time $75 reinstatement fee and complete federal financial aid form, known as FAFSA, to determine if they qualify for federal or state financial aid. Students must enroll for the fall semester by August 20.

Kate McGee covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @McGeeReports.

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