'Unbelievable!': Benito Juarez HS students, parents surprised with full rides to Illinois colleges

It was a stunning announcement that could change thousands of young lives in Chicago.

Every student at Pilsen's Benito Juárez Community Academy learned they won’t have to pay a dime to go to college in Illinois. It’s part of a massive fundraising effort by civic leaders to send thousands of Chicago high school students to college, tuition-free.

Juárez High School students gathered in the school’s auditorium Tuesday morning not knowing their academic hopes and dreams were about to change.

Philanthropist Pete Kadens made the announcement: "Your college tuition, your room and board, your books and fees will be paid for. You will go to college for free."

The crowd erupted in cheers and some students broke into tears at the stunning news.

"Unbelievable! I’m still trying to process it right now," said Juarez Senior Cristian Gonzalez. "I was crying, honestly. I was telling my friend next to me what is going on? Is this even real?"

It’s the culmination of two years of fundraising by a group called Hope Chicago, a collection of civic leaders and business heavy hitters. Their goal is to raise $1 billion to send thousands of Chicago high school students to Illinois colleges for free.

The money will be given to a student regardless of their GPA or immigration status.

Juarez is the first of five Chicago high schools that will be getting free college this week. The others will be announced later in the week.

"The plan is to start with five," said Hope Chicago founder Ted Koenig. "We’re going to grow from there. We’re going to do it throughout Illinois. I believe this is a model program for the United States."


Juárez students say the college money will allow them to focus on academics.

"I want to say thank you. Because for me, I was stressing about money," said Juarez senior Yotzin Tzintzun. "And it’s not only me, the entire senior class that’s graduating."

Dr. Janice Jackson is the former CEO of Chicago Public Schools. She is now the CEO of Hope Chicago.

"Right now, about 63% of our kids go to college but only 27% of those graduate. So we gotta do better," she said.

And it’s not just students benefiting. The program provides funding for one parent or guardian in each family to go to college as well.

"What Hope Chicago is doing with this announcement is transformative, truly transformative," said Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker, who appeared on stage for the announcement.

Currently, 20 Illinois universities are taking part in the program, including state colleges like the University of Illinois. Some trade schools and private schools are also taking part.