Students benefit from NIU’s partnership with Rockford schools

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Photo courtesy of Conner Childers

Scholars gather to celebrate largest Rockford Promise class.

Gabriel Fiorini, News Reporter

DeKALBThanks to a partnership between NIU and Rockford Promise, a non-profit organization offering select students full-tuition scholarships, 96 first-year students from the Rockford Public School District are attending NIU this year.

NIU’s implementation of the program has led to a substantial increase in the number of Rockford residents attending the university. 

“Last fall, we had 21 students who came to us from a Rockford Public School, and this fall we have 100, so that’s quite a big difference,” said Anne Hardy, director of scholarships at NIU. “That really increases the opportunity for the students from Rockford to know that they can have this educational opportunity and for increasing our enrollment.” 

To be eligible for the Rockford Promise at NIU, students must attend Rockford Public Schools all four years of high school and earn a cumulative grade point average of 3.0 or higher. 

To remain eligible for the scholarship, students in the program must maintain a minimum cumulative GPA of 2.5 while attending NIU. Students who fail to meet these requirements or whose GPA falls below 2.5 will be placed on probation for a period not exceeding one semester. 

The agreement that we have is for at least the next 17 years, so that’s really exciting because, in Rockford, they can start talking to their students in elementary school and middle school.”

— Anne Hardy, director of scholarships at NIU

Although the program’s partnership with NIU is recent, many Rockford students have already taken advantage of the opportunity.

“We saw a 380% increase in kids choosing to go to Northern Illinois University from Rockford public schools, and 79% of the kids who chose to participate in this program were first-generation college students,”  Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara said. .

The reaction to the program’s development has been overwhelmingly positive, McNamara said.

“When a community has higher educational attainment levels, they have lower levels of violent crime,” McNamara said.

Academic programs like Rockford Promise don’t just affect prospective college students. McNamara attested to the positive effects promise programs have on communities implementing promise programs. Even property owners in Rockford without college-aged children can reap the benefits.

“If you own a property in Rockford and don’t have a student that can take advantage of this, your property value has now increased because now your home comes with free college tuition,” McNamara said.

The organization’s goal is to increase the collective community’s education attainment and incentivize students within the Rockford Public School District. 

“The agreement that we have is for at least the next 17 years, so that’s really exciting because, in Rockford, they can start talking to their students in elementary school and middle school,” Hardy said. “So those students will know that they have the opportunity to come to NIU, and if they’re part of this program, their tuition and fees are covered through scholarships and grants.”

Kevin Salazar is a first-year business administration major at NIU. Salazar graduated from Jefferson High School in Rockford this year and was accepted by the program this fall.

“The way I heard of it was just through a Facebook ad, just scrolling through and I saw it in our local newspaper, and they said that they were giving full-tuition scholarships and I was interested in it,” Salazar said. “It’s definitely worth it; the only reason I came here in the first place was because I got into the program, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to afford it.”

The program offers full tuition to qualifying students, but beyond the financial barrier of higher education, there are other obstacles to consider. 

“The financial barrier is just one piece, but the scholar support is a big piece,” said Tasha Davis, executive director for Rockford Promise. “In order not to waste money, we really have to focus on supporting the scholars while they are there to ensure they graduate.”

The Rockford Promise program offers mentorships to the admitted students and helps provide tools beyond graduation.

The scholarship offered by the university and the program is annually renewable. Students will continue to receive grants from the fund for four years so long as they meet the requirements. The scholarship will end after four years of enrollment or upon graduation, whichever comes first. 

These scholarships and grants come from the program as well as directly from NIU.

“For the fall semester, NIU committed about $355,000, and then Rockford Promise has committed about $84,000,” Hardy said.

The scholarship offered through the partnership is considered to be a “last-dollar” program. Funding from Rockford Promise is applied after all other forms of financial aid, such as grants, academic merit-based scholarships and other sources of federal funding.

“The program isn’t a set dollar amount that we’re getting,” Salazar said. “It’s just whatever we have tuition-wise. If we have other scholarships, they’ll use that first, and then they (Northern Illinois University and Rockford Promise) will cover the rest of it.”

Although the present partnership between NIU and Rockford Promise is a recent development, the program has partnered with a university before. NIU is the third college to partner with the program, the first two being Rock Valley College and Rockford University. Rockford Promise continues to search for new ways to help students from the Rockford Public School districts to attain higher education.

It’s definitely worth it; the only reason I came here in the first place was because I got into the program, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to afford it.”

— Rockford Promise student Kevin Salazar

“In regards to expansion to other universities, we are continuously working to partner with other universities. Right now, we are in the works of talking with the University of Wisconsin-Madison and several other partners within the University of Illinois systems,” Davis said. “So, the goal is to expand the options for scholarships for Rockford Promise scholars.”

Seniors hoping to apply for the Fall 2022 semester must apply for admission and file a FAFSA or an Alternative Application for Illinois Financial Aid by the priority deadline of Feb. 1, 2022.  

“Yeah, it is a very good opportunity,” Salazar said. “If you want to go to college to further your career or anything like that, I would definitely try and do it no matter what.”

NIU will be accepting scholarship applications between Oct. 1, 2021, and Feb. 1, 2022. To apply for the Rockford Promise scholarship, visit the organization’s website.

“The hope is that the students will return to Rockford and become a part of their workforce,” Hardy said. “So it’s really, you know, a community development initiative too.”