Ana Pineda (back row) prepares to take an exam in her women in modern history class at Lake Forest College.
JOSÉ M. OSORIO/TRIBUNE PHOTO
Four years ago, Lake Forest College had three times as many student applicants from abroad as from Chicago Public Schools, located about 30 miles away.
CPS students didn’t consider the tranquil campus in the affluent North Shore suburb when they applied to colleges, and frankly the college wasn’t focused on them either.
That began to change in 2008, when the private liberal arts college announced the Chicago Scholars program, a full-ride scholarship for high-achieving CPS students. The idea was to attract needy Chicago students—from neighborhood and magnet schools—who couldn’t fathom the nearly $40,000-a-year tuition and fees.
In turn, the college—an idyllic campus of green grass and brick buildings—would gain a more diverse student body as it sought to increase enrollment.
It worked. Last week, the first class of 15 scholars graduated, many of them the first in their families to attend college. And the word has spread about Lake Forest: There were 628 applications from CPS students for the fall 2012 freshman class, up from 53 the year before the program began—and more than the number from international students.
Now about 9 percent of the school’s 1,500 undergraduates are CPS alumni. Before the program, about 20 former CPS students would have been on campus at any one time.
“I didn’t even know if I would end up going to college because of financial issues,” said Ana Pineda, 21, who graduated from Mather High School on Chicago’s North Side and was admitted to other highly selective schools, including the University of Chicago.
She commuted from her parents’ Chicago home for all but two semesters and borrowed textbooks from the library to save money.
“Having this is so good for students who have the potential to do great in their life and their careers,” said Pineda, an environmental studies major graduating with no student loans to pay back.
In each of the first four years of the Chicago Scholars program, between 12 and 24 students have received the awards. The recipients come from some of the city’s best schools, including highly selective Walter Payton College Prep, and some of the chronically underperforming, such as Julian High School on the city’s South Side, where about 37 percent of graduates in 2010 went to a four-year college.
Colleges and universities nationwide are competing for high-achieving minority students as they try to attract racially and economically diverse students. That pressure could grow even more in coming years if the U.S. Supreme Court decides this fall to forbid universities from considering race in admissions decisions, and colleges seek other ways to diversify their student bodies.
Realizing they had been overlooking a potential pool of qualified students at CPS, Lake Forest officials decided to start the Chicago Scholars program, the first and only full-ride scholarship offered by the college. The University of Chicago also offers a CPS-targeted four-year full tuition scholarship and waives the college application fee for all CPS students.
“Clearly we were not devoting the attention or the level of resources that we are now to the city of Chicago in recruiting,” said Stephen Schutt, president of Lake Forest College since 2001. “This program has opened the doors for those families.”
Student Ryan Meadors described how he applied to Lake Forest after his high school counselor suggested it had a good psychology program. He couldn’t have found Lake Forest on a map.
“If I had looked at the price, I probably would never have applied,” said Meadors, 22, who grew up in Rogers Park and graduated from Walter Payton. “For me, it was a leap of faith. If they are going to waive the tuition, I will try it.”
“I would never have been able to come here without it.”
The first few months were a culture shock, the students said. For some of them, their only prior experience north of the city was visiting Six Flags Great America in Gurnee.
Meadors was taken by the starry sky. Pineda enjoyed sitting in solitude on a bench without anyone sitting next to her.
And April Arellano, 22, who graduated from Lake View High School, said she was overwhelmed at first. “It was so different from CPS. You don’t see fights every day,” she said.
Schutt said the program’s successful outreach is reflected by the fact that the college is enrolling more CPS students beyond those awarded the full scholarships. This past fall’s freshman class of 406 students included 43 from CPS, of which 14 are Chicago Scholars.
And the college is focused on the city in other ways as well. Through the Lake Forest in the Loop program, it has rented a floor of a youth hostel where 35 students spend a semester living downtown while they intern and take classes.
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