ROCKFORD — A proposal to create a city-funded Rockford Promise scholarship to Northern Illinois University aims to address many of the challenges that have long plagued the Forest City, from attracting wealth to retaining talent and improving public schools.
The program promises to cover the cost of tuition and fees for Rockford Public Schools graduates who live within the city and have a 3.0 grade-point average and annual family gross income of over $75,000.
The already operating NIU Huskie Pledge scholarship program covers tuition and fees for any Illinois high school graduate — public or private — who wishes to attend NIU and whose family makes less than $75,000 annually.
The two programs combined make what the city of Rockford, Rockford Public Schools, NIU and Rockford Promise are calling a game-changing opportunity to transform the city’s future.
The partnership allows Rockford Promise to announce its first-ever scholarship opportunity for most Rockford Public Schools students regardless of how much money their parents make, what part of the city they call home or how much the nonprofit receives each year in donations.
By creating a series of incentives, the Rockford Promise NIU scholarship could inspire current students to do better in school and families to move to Rockford and invest in the community.
“All students in Rockford can qualify, and we are making it location-based so all property values will increase,” said Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara. “And, quite honestly, we do want people of means to move into our city. As I hope everyone does.”
It’s expected to cost the city $1.5 million a year for the next 17 years and change the trajectory of the city from one of poorly performing schools and a struggling economy to one of success.
Hard Rock International has agreed to pay the city $7 million a year in gaming tax revenue and fees once the casino is up and running.
If the City Council agrees to use anticipated casino revenue to pay for the program, Rockford Promise could send its first students to NIU as soon as fall 2021.
Improving public schools’ performance is important because they are a factor both in an employer’s decision to locate or expand a business in the Rockford region and in a prospective employee’s decision to accept a job here, said Einar Forsman, president and CEO of the Rockford Chamber of Commerce.
“That is why with this being available, that changes things,” Forsman said. “That’s a nice little frosting to add to a decision process that somebody has to make when they are considering where to locate when they are coming to our community.”
The cost of college is a huge expense and the Rockford Promise NIU Scholarship is a “powerful economic incentive for individuals and businesses to locate in our region,” Transform Rockford Executive Director David Sidney said.
“This is about growth and the future of our entire community, so this is a very exciting moment,” Sidney said. “Education and job growth are two keys to transforming our region into a top 25 community.”
People with a four-year degree on average earn about $30,000 more a year than someone with a high school diploma alone.
About 25% of the city’s residents over the age of 25 have a bachelor’s degree, according to the U.S. Census. The state average is about 34%.
The high school graduation rate for Illinois is 88%. For Rockford Public Schools, it’s 67%.
According to scholarship materials, parents need to remain living in Rockford while their child attends NIU in order to continue to receive the scholarship.
Once enrolled, RPS students must maintain a GPA of 2.5 of higher to keep their scholarship, which would be available to them for four years.
The Huskie Pledge opened the door to a college education at NIU for 719 Illinois residents this year, 21 of them from Rockford Public Schools.
According to Sol Jensen, NIU vice president for enrollment, marketing and communications, Huskie Pledge students made up 35% of this year’s incoming freshman class.
For Rockford Public Schools graduates who do not meet the $75,000 adjusted family income threshold, the city of Rockford will pay up to $6,000 a year per student for tuition and fees, and NIU will pay the rest, Jensen said.
The annual cost of tuition and fees at NIU this year is about $12,300.
While NIU has 21 RPS students attending the school this year under the Huskie Pledge, it has 25 freshman who are RPS graduates.
Both programs cover the cost of tuition and fees for four years as long as the student remains eligible for assistance.
It’s difficult to speculate how many Rockford students will seek admission to NIU because of the Huskie Pledge and Rockford Promise NIU Scholarship, Jensen said.
“It’s safe to say this type of excitement and this type of program is going to generate interest,” he said. “It’s a powerful tool.”
According to Rockford Public Schools, about 460 high school seniors have a GPA of 3.0 or higher right now.
The Rockford Promise NIU scholarship is unique to NIU, Jensen said, but he hopes that doesn’t last long.
The university would like to strike a similar agreement with Rockford Promise and Rock Valley College, he said.
“Historically, many more students transfer to us from RVC than come to us directly from high school,” Jensen said.
Unfortunately, Jensen said, those students are not eligible for the Huskie Pledge or Rockford Promise NIU Scholarship as those scholarships are reserved for first-year college students.
That includes the couple of dozen Rockford Public Schools students who receive two-year scholarships to Rock Valley each year from Rockford Promise.
“We been working together for two years to try and make something happen,” Jensen said. “I hope that we can still figure something out.”