An inner-city challenge: get good grades and be good, and get free tuition

Sometimes, the economic news out there isn't all bad.

Earlier this week, The Chicago Sun Times reported that 22 middle school students at Roosevelt Middle School in Bellwood, a community deep in urban Chicago, have been offered the challenge of a lifetime. If they can get A's and B's in all of their grades in middle and high school, and stay out of trouble, they'll be given free tuition to attend Concordia University in River Forest, one of the most tony and affluent locations in Chicago.

It's a program sponsored by Fifth Third Bank, although kudos for Concordia for agreeing to offer a significant discount to the students if they succeed in this challenge. Tuition, after all, is $30,000 a year -- now. It'll likely be a bit higher in 2015 when these sixth-graders graduate.

(And I hate to be snarky, but given the state of the banking industry, my first thought when I read about this was: What happens to this program if Fifth Third isn't around in 2015? But let's not go there.)

The Chicago Sun Times credits the idea to Tom Jandris, Concordia's graduate school dean, and Terry Zinc, a top officer at Fifth Third. Their hope is that other universities and corporations take notice and start offering similar programs to students, particularly those who live and go to school in at-risk areas. And these kids in Bellwood are in at-risk school district. At the high school they're going to attend, only 20% of the kids generally meet state testing standards.

Obviously keeping that in mind, the program isn't just designed so that the kids are offered the challenge, and then they never hear anything again for the next six years. The students are all receiving laptops with learning software, and they're going to have access to free tutoring from students and staff members at Concordia. They'll be allowed to take free summer-school classes and, if they want them, be given paid summer jobs. Their parents are going to be encouraged to take courses in financial fitness at Fifth Third Bank.

In other words, if any of these 22 middle schoolers really, really want to go to college, it should -- at least in theory -- be almost hard for them to fail.

These sorts of scholarships crop up from time to time, but it would be interesting to see what would happen if these programs were truly replicated throughout the nation.

Geoff Williams is a freelance journalist and the author of C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America (Rodale).
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