Clark State expands free tuition program to Champaign County

Students in Champaign County will have the chance to go to Clark State for free now that the community college has expanded a scholars program to the area.

Until now the Champion City Scholars program was only available to students within the Springfield City School District. Now 10 eighth graders from Graham Local Schools and 10 eighth graders from Urbana City Schools will be chosen to participate in the new Champaign County Scholars program at the beginning of next school year.

“The whole purpose is to ensure three free years of college for these students,” Clark State President Jo Alice Blondin said.

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The students need to be the first member of their family to attend college, she said, and qualify for free or reduced lunch to be considered.

“Donors want to make sure we’re serving the students with the greatest need,” she said.

They’ll be chosen in partnership between the districts and the Clark State Foundation and mentored throughout high school.

To date about $135,000 has been pledged toward a goal of a $750,000 endowment for the Champaign County Scholars program.

The program has been available to Springfield students since 2004 and is funded by the Clark State Foundation, said Catie Maher, director of the foundation.

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Since 2014, 25 percent of students who participated in Champion City Scholars through high school have attended Clark State, Maher said, and 73 percent have earned some college credit.

“We’re at a point where we’ve shown success in the program,” she said. “We’ve kind of learned along the way, tweaked it.”

Clark State is also working with Urbana University to ensure Champaign County Scholars will be able to transfer and complete their bachelor’s degree at the university. Students also are matched up with volunteer mentors starting in eighth grade.

A program like this is key to showing students they are capable of attending college, Blondin said.

“If you have college credit and you have success in a college course, the chances of you going to college are greater,” she said.

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It can also help to educate a needed workforce in the community, she said, and “…to increase the opportunities for our young so they stay here, they build the workforce and become taxpayers.”

Graham Local Schools Superintendent Kirk Koennecke believes students will be excited about the chance to go to college for free.

“We couldn’t be more thrilled to have this opportunity for Graham students,” he said.

It shows Clark State is committed to the community, Koennecke said.

“The ability to help a cohort of students next year starting with 10 eighth graders so that they could realize the dream of post-secondary education and a college scholarship upon graduation from high school is an awesome opportunity,” he said.

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Clark State plans to expand the program further, Blondin said, into other Clark and Champaign county districts. Plus, she said they’d also like to expand the program to Logan and Greene counties, where they also have campuses.

Patrick Field, president of Wallace and Turner Insurance in Springfield and owner of Coppertop Restaurant in Urbana, was involved in starting the program in Springfield. He’s also donated to it and mentored students.

“This is one of the few things in life with no losers,” Field said in a statement. “The community wins, Urbana and Graham win, kids win, parents win, Clark State wins, Urbana University wins.”

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