Chicago State University on the Frontline of Education Equity and Bridging the Wealth Gap in Black and Latinx Communities

Last Thursday, June 11, 2020, Chicago State University (CSU) launched a new program, Cougar Commitment Initiative (CCI), which plans to establish an equal playing field for Black and Latinx students as it pertains to obtaining a college degree, being successful throughout their undergraduate journey and securing and maintaining wealth.

What initiated the idea of the Cougar Commitment Initiative (CCI)?

Since Zadwaynaka “Z” Scott became CSU president, she immediately began conversations with her team around student success. She formed a task force led by her chief of staff and provost to study student success strategies and the data that impacted the success. President Scott sent out her academic and administrative teams to visit universities, particularly Georgia State and Wayne State University. They have both seen significant improvement in their graduation and retention rates, which CSU is looking to do. Scott and her team studied these universities’ practices and principles and applied their findings along with their data to start building the Cougar Commitment Initiative.

After combining a series of data points such as the 26% decline in Black student enrollment in higher education (Board of Higher Education); the lack of access to funding; the vast majority of first-generation college students coming into CSU; and the ongoing technology divide between the Black community and the Majority community, especially now during a pandemic, CSU realized and understood that all of these impediments could influence an incoming freshman’s access to a college education. Though it took quite a while to develop, the Cougar Commitment Initiative has been launched will begin with its Cougar Commitment Initiative this fall.

What is the goal and focus of CCI?

CCI’s goal is to remove the barriers to access. This will be accomplished by 1) giving the students the funding they need to enroll, complete and move through college; 2) providing students with holistic support, like a more intrusive advising model and that is more focused on student success and; 3) providing the students with an early victory, through a college course experience that is designed to introduce college in a way that is is more geared towards success.

The focus of CCI is to put students through the Rise Academy, which is our summer program where we will introduce skills like financial literacy, leadership, college studying habits, conduct discussion groups asking “why college?”, and find out what students hope to gain from the college experience. Students will not have to worry about the necessary tools to be successful such as a laptop or Internet access. Once students finish the program, they receive their CSU tuition-free for their first-year college experience. “Our students should never have to worry about how they’re going to pay for college,” President Scott.

Is there a cap on the number of students who can register for Rise Academy?

The number of Rise Scholars CSU is unlimited.

Can a 40-something-year-old freshman qualify for Rise Academy?

Absolutely. “We want to see people looking to change the trajectory of their lives and their experiences. And so, if there is someone out there who is 40 years old who thinks, ‘now is the time,’ I agree. Now is the time,” President Scott.

How does CSU plan to address and shift the mindset of those families who generationally have never completed or even attended college?

President Scott hopes to convene our community through the relationships with churches and community organizations to begin college conversation.  Many of CSU’s students are coming from some zip codes with some of the worst outcomes when it comes to COVID-19 and violence in their neighborhoods. Consequently, if students need housing, CSU has a dormitory and encourages them to apply for a housing waiver. CSU has a Career Services Office that will assist in finding employment if students need to work while they learn. If students need food, CSU has a Food Pantry on campus that supports our staff and students. President Scott emphasizes that with CCI, they are trying to take all those roadblocks and impediments off the table to make going to college more attainable to Black and Latinx communities.

How will CSU continue to sustain the Cougar Commitment?

Georgia State University had the benefit of significant support from outside funding partners, like philanthropic organizations. So, they were able to dig deeper into the use of more tools in evaluating data, particularly with Georgia State. CSU has received some funding support for student success strategies through one of the foundations in Illinois. The foundation funded the improvement of the advising model and training for the advisors.

CSU is accepting any and all contributions to fund CCI. “The model that CSU is proposing and implementing should be funded by stakeholders, including philanthropic organizations, corporations, and local businesses. CSU is not only supporting our Black community, but our efforts also promote diversity in Illinois. 91% of CSU students are Illinois residents, which means it is likely that the students who leave CSU will become a part of the financial fiber of this City and State. We should see a commitment from corporate leaders to invest in our students and Chicago State, particularly around a program like this where we are likely to see significant success with Black and Latinx students’ access to college.

Interested donors can reach out to the Chicago State Foundation at 773.995.5300.  Executive Director, Darrious Hilmon, is available to talk about strategies for investing in our student access program, our Rise Academy, in its first year. CSU is entertaining all visitors and those interested in learning more about the program and what they believe will be the outcome of the program.

President Scott’s Shares These Final Thoughts

“I want to drive home this principle: we cannot support our community unless part of the solution is grounded in access to higher education. So many things that have happened in the last, you know, 2-3 months have you know, our community is vulnerable to a pandemic and any crisis. And the way to crawl out of this is, in part, to focus on higher education. It has been proven that with a college degree, your health outcome and access to wealth improves. So, we must encourage students to think about higher education as for, you know, a life that will support them and also support our community.”


Contributing writer, Kim Durden, is a lifestyle writer living in Chicago.  Find her on social media at Divine Dine Foodie Tours, @divinedinefoodietours.



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