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Inside Sauk Valley Community College's Free Tuition Program That Caught The First Lady's Eye

Peter Medlin
Sauk Valley Community College

Last week, First Lady Dr. Jill Biden and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona spoke at Sauk Valley Community College. But, why did they make the trip out to Dixon? It’s because tuition could be a thing of the past for future Sauk Valley students. The college’s upcoming “Impact Program” provides free tuition to students who complete 100 hours of community service in high school.

Dr. Lori Cortez, SVCC’s Dean of Institutional Advancement, says they’ve been planning this program with local business and school leaders for a few years. Since January, they’ve started fundraising for it before it opens to students in 2022.

“We have reached the $2 million mark and we are fairly certain we will be able to secure an additional million dollars in the next 60 days," she said. "And so that puts us well ahead of schedule.” 

They’ve even had some young students investing in the future of their education amid the student debt crisis.

“Our very first public donation came from kids themselves,” said Cortez. “There's a local business here called Bubba-Bug Popcorn and these are kids that are in middle school and high school that sell popcorn kernels.”

Seventeen area high schools are participating. There’s no GPA requirement to stay in the program before college. Students will sign up at the start of their freshmen year, but older students and those moving into the community can still join in and reduce their tuition with community service.

During their planning phases, Sauk Valley conducted a feasibility study to make sure they could raise the money for the multi-million-dollar campaign. Cortez says they heard over and over from businesses that plenty of jobs were available, but they didn’t have a pool of workers applying.

“We know that there's an international corporation here in the Sauk Valley that just a few short years ago considered moving to the suburbs, because they lacked a trained and qualified workforce from which to choose,” said Cortez. “And we don't ever want that to be an issue for our local businesses again.”

Since they began fundraising, she said, businesses considering moving to the area have inquired about the Impact Program.

More than 350 similar paid-tuition programs exist across the country. Cortez said College Promise programs like this have been known to increase school enrollment and even the whole area's population.

She also cited theexodus of Illinois students leavingthe state. Cortez said she hopes “Promise” programs like this can make them feel like they can make a difference and a living in their own community.

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