Here’s what Evan Westerfield couldn’t understand.
“The student has been talking about studying nursing and then, all of a sudden, they’ve changed their mind and say, ‘Nah, I want to go to that school because I want to do business,’” Westerfield explained. “And you look them in the eye and say, ‘What? Where did that come from?’”
Turns out, his answer was in those students’ financial aid letters.
“You’re looking at them and you know that behind there, there’s this letter that they don’t want to show mom and dad,” Westerfield said. “They go to the school that has the least out-of-pocket cost.”
A couple thousand dollars may not seem like much. But for many poor North Lawndale students, it might as well be a million.
The school announced last week it plans to step in and pay the difference with the help of local philanthropists. They are creating a financial endowment called The Phoenix Pact to equalize costs for any student with a 3.0 GPA.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan helped open North Lawndale College Prep 17 years ago and returned to the school for the announcement.
“If you guys can start to prove there’s not just one amazing young person or one amazing teacher but systemically dozens of dozens of young people every single year (who) can graduate, and cannot just go to college but graduate from college on the back end, you start to let the nation know what’s possible,” he said. "If you can create a model, the national implications are pretty big.”
There are a lot of cities trying different models to lower costs of college to almost nothing. Kalamazoo, Michigan, gives its public high school graduates a full ride anywhere. A number of other cities are trying something similar, through the “Yes to Education” program. Even Mayor Rahm Emanuel has promised free community college to all B-average students in Chicago Public Schools.
But The Phoenix Pact is different because it steers kids to colleges with a track record of getting students across the stage on graduation day.
Westerfield said he sifted through years of information on North Lawndale alumni and came up with a list of more than a dozen colleges he calls “Success Schools”: Universities where more than half of the low-income, minority students graduate on time. Places like Michigan State, Lake Forest College, University of Illinois, and Luther College.
He said he hopes the new fund not only motivates the school’s students, but pushes colleges to raise graduation rates for low-income students.
“Would colleges work a little harder if they’re at 45 percent to get over that 50 percent? Maybe not for just us and our little program, but if we can build it out, if we can model what would happen, then someone will copy us,” Westerfield said, noting that right now, billions of dollars in federal Pell grants end up going to colleges that have low graduation rates for low-income students.
“The possibility of harnessing all that federal money to drive improvement in our higher education… could be really good,” he said.
But if anyone starts copying The Phoenix Pact, it’s likely to be local. Chicago Public Schools Chief of Innovation and Incubation Jack Elsey was in the room during the Friday announcement too.
“I think this is game-changing,” Elsey said. “I’m here because we’re watching. We want to see if this is actually going to make the difference to increase graduation rates for low-income kids.”
WBEZ’s Linda Lutton contributed to this report.