DIXON, Ill. — When Dr. Lori Cortez, dean of institutional advancement at Sauk Valley Community College, saw an email from the White House, on April 6, she admits she had a second of doubt.
“This happened right after April Fools’ Day, and April Fools’ Day is no joke around Sauk. We take it very seriously. I thought this might have been a delayed April Fools’ Day joke, but I quickly realized it was not,” Cortez said.
The email, from the White House scheduler, was on behalf of First Lady Dr. Jill Biden. The scheduler wanted to know if the college would be interested in a potential visit from the first lady.
She was interested in finding out more about the college’s Impact Program, a program that will allow students to earn free tuition and fees by performing community service.
“We received the email and had a conversation with the White House the next day and she came here on April 19,” Cortez said.
The program that Biden was interested in is slated to pilot its first two classes this summer.
The Impact Program will allow high school students in Sauk’s district to earn three years of tuition and fees at the college by performing community service work while in high school.
“It doesn’t matter if a student is going into welding, going to be an electrician, if they’re going into nursing or English or physics, they can come to Sauk at no cost,” Cortez said.
The idea for the program came in 2017 after college officials had a listening tour of the community college district. The SVCC district includes parts of Bureau, Carroll, Henry, Lee, Ogle and Whiteside counties.
“We kept hearing many issues that our employers were having, that our chambers of commerce were experiencing, that our citizens were experiencing,” Cortez said.
Dr. David Hellmich, president of the college, tasked Cortez with writing a white paper on how a College Promise program, the nationwide initiative to offer free community college tuition and fees to students, might work for Sauk.
College officials started developing the program for Sauk in 2018 and 2019, with input from local school officials and teachers, as well as business and community leaders.
After a pilot program this summer, the program will be rolled out to all high school students in the district in the summer of 2022.
“The Impact Program allows each and every high school student in Sauk’s district to earn three years of tuition and fees at Sauk, regardless of their GPA and regardless of their major. That means a student would have to perform 100 hours of community service while in high school. They have to sign up for the program and fill out a (Free Application For Student Aid) or a FAFSA forecaster, if they are ineligible to apply for FAFSA, when they get to their senior year of high school. If they do those things — and the big part of it is the community service — they can come to Sauk at no cost to them,” Cortez said.
Once they are in college, students have to maintain a 2.0 GPA per semester, be enrolled in a certificate, degree or transfer program and complete 25 hours of community service per year.
Cortez emphasized that the community service — 100 hours by high school graduation and then 25 hours per year while in college — is the core of the program.
“It is earned tuition because they have to do the community service and there are no ifs, ands or buts about the 100 hours. They are earning this tuition,” she said.
Started in 2015 by President Barack Obama, the College Promise program has 368 programs in colleges around the country and 31 states have statewide Promise programs.
“The workforce development and the economic development that comes from these programs is astounding,” Cortez said.
She added that two groups, auto dealers and Realtors, are interested in the Promise programs at community colleges.
“If a student does not have to take out student loan debt and if they can work at a job that pays a higher wage, they are spending that money on homes and cars,” Cortez said.
Cortez said the college currently is in the midst of a multi-year campaign to fund the program.
“It is an endowment campaign, so once we reach our goal, it will live in perpetuity. This program is not going away,” she said.
The $10 million endowment campaign already has secured $2 million, and Cortez said the SVCC Foundation hopes to secure another $1 million by the end of May. The Impact Program has received support from local organizations and from local students.
“The Morrison Rotary made a 10-year, $2,500 a year pledge and Bubba Bug Popcorn, a locally-grown popcorn business operated by two local young people, was our very first donor to the program,” Cortez said.