LINK Scholars Gives Black Chicago Students a Ticket to Their Future

Photos: LINK Unlimited Scholars

Most high school students, like Amber Saul, a senior at Marian Catholic High School, find the college application process so daunting that they may not even apply. “To be honest, if it weren’t for LINK, I probably wouldn’t have applied to any schools,” Saul admits. “I felt so behind. But they explained the process to me in a way that made sense.”

LINK Unlimited Scholars is a college access and academic enrichment organization that helps Black Chicagoland students get to college. 

By offering a strong program to close the academic success gap between their peers, students can create a path toward long-term economic stability. Applications to become a LINK Scholar are now open and due on Feb. 2. 

“Our students are graduating college nearly two times that of Chicago Public Schools’ Black student population,” says Toinette Gunn, CEO and President. “At LINK Unlimited, we demonstrate that when Black students are afforded opportunities, they can excel at or beyond their peers.” 

The students or Scholars, as the organization refers to them, participate in a four-year fellowship that provides an individual approach based on academic enrichment, leadership development, career exposure and college access. Students apply during their 8th-grade year and, upon selection, begin the program the summer before high school. 

“When I interviewed in 8th grade, I was really nervous. But over time, I developed more social skills and became more confident after attending virtual rather than in-person sessions with the rest of my cohort,” Amber said. 

The program is open to students planning to attend high school, whether public or private. However, high school freshmen who enroll at Catholic, private or parochial schools can earn a scholarship to offset their family’s contribution towards tuition.  

Gunn shares that the organization’s primary focus is to partner with private, Catholic and parochial schools. This approach speaks to a larger issue concerning the limited quality of public schools available to families. 

“While LINK Scholars can attend any type of school, our emphasis on Catholic, parochial, and private schools stems from the reality that there aren’t that many quality schools available in our city. Unless you attend the Chicago Public Schools’ selective enrollment schools, quality options are limited.” 

Supporting Black Students Long-Term Life Outcomes

LINK Unlimited Scholars

Chicago high school students have many college access and academic programs to choose from, but what sets LINK apart is that “we exclusively serve Black students,” says Gunn. “Our focus is intentional. The population and the communities have been the most disenfranchised, the most oppressed, and left behind. And this impacts their economic mobility and educational outcomes.”

LINK’s goal “is to mitigate the effect of systemic and structural forces impeding Black students by improving and increasing educational opportunities and access.”

According to Chalkbeat Chicago’s 2023 Illinois Assessment for Readiness data analysis, only 17.3% and 7.8% of Black students are proficient in English and Math, respectively. Compared to 53.8% and 48.1% for English and Math, respectively, for White students. LINK’s program model emphasizes academic enrichment, which translates to 100% of their students graduating from high school in the last 23 years. 

LINK’s mission pursues both short-term and long-term impact. In addition to academic success, 60% of its students graduate college. LINK has a goal of bumping college graduation rates to 85% by 2025. “We’ve got a little ways to go, but the model does work. As we strengthen our college support, we’ll see that growth.” 

Advancing Black students’ economic mobility is another driver behind LINK’s work. “We believe that education is the surest route to the middle class. We know that people who attain a college degree have a greater chance of earning more money in their lifetime. It can completely disrupt what they grew up experiencing and create a future that may not have been otherwise possible,” Dr. Gunn asserts. 

Most specifically, LINK also seeks to help students limit their dependence on student loan debt, which can impact their economic security in the future. 

“We want our students to develop a strong academic profile so that they can command acceptances from selective and highly selective colleges that offer transformative financial aid packages,” Gunn said, “We know that this can equate to better success. A student can focus on their classes instead of worrying about paying tuition.” 

Amber is proud to receive generous financial aid packages from several schools. She knows that minimal student debt is possible because of the LINK alums that have set a precedent. 

“People say ‘don’t go into debt for college,’ but LINK shows you how to make that possible. They share amazing stories of alumni who have earned full rides or have half of their tuition paid for. And it makes me want to do that as well.” 

According to a 2016 White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans Fact Sheet, Black college graduates have nearly $25,000 more student debt, with an average of $52,726, compared to $28,006 for White borrowers. 

The LINK Class of 2023 earned over $16.1 million in scholarships to support their college journey. Gunn encourages: “We want college debt to be the last thing they’re burdened with.”

A Citywide Effort

LINK Unlimited Scholars photo

LINK Unlimited touts partnerships with 96 corporations and 46 foundations across the Chicagoland area. Immediate Past Board Chair Steve Hackney encourages a push from citywide institutions, including the corporate and philanthropic communities, to make strategic investments in work that supports LINK Unlimited’s vision. 

“We need the business and philanthropic community to understand that pipeline organizations like LINK are vital to the City’s future economic health. They can fortify and extend that pipeline through sustainable investment of time, talent and treasure,” Hackney asserts. 

“This is a marathon, not a sprint. The only way to change this centuries-long problem is to apply maximum effort over a sustained period of time. No one is better positioned to help LINK do that than those very communities that will benefit from LINK’s efforts.”

In addition to financial support to fund the organization’s mission, the companies encourage their professionals to serve as mentors. According to their 2021-2022 Impact report, LINK has received support from 224 mentors who have invested over 3,600 hours. In recent years, Gunn says that the organization has seen its alums return to become mentors as well, who can be mirrors for current Scholars. 

Scaling Impact Through a Mindset Shift 

LINK Unlimited Scholars photo

When young people participate in LINK Unlimited, they are considered more than students. Gunn says that language is important. “Being part of this program is an opportunity that they earned. And they are awarded the title of being a Scholar.” 

She suggests that changing the language can shift how program participants see themselves. 

“When you look at our ten focus communities across the South and West sides, if you overlay heat maps, you’ll find the most poverty, underperforming schools, crime rates and health disparities. These are the systems that tell our students who they are. But our program aims to overhaul those influences. This shift in language informs who they can be, where they belong, and where they are going.”

Amber is very confident in her future, and she has LINK to thank for her development. 

“I’ve strengthened my leadership skills as a LINK Scholar. I know how to navigate what’s in front of me, use my resources and take full advantage of opportunities that come my way.”

For more information on the LINK UNLIMITED SCHOLARS program, please visit linkunlimited.org/be-a-scholar.

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