NIU program keeps its Rockford Promise

Northern Illinois University

Cassie Lopez Almanza

Cassie Lopez Almanza leaves college this month with an impressive academic record and no debt. 

Almanza, who says she hopes to become a doctor, is the first success story from a partnership between the city of Rockford, Rockford Public Schools and the Rockford Promise Program at NIU. 

In just three years’ time, Almanza earned her undergraduate degree in biological sciences with a minor in chemistry—and she says she is graduating with zero student debt. 

The Rockford Promise Program at NIU represents a university partnership with the Rockford Promise organization, Rockford Public Schools and the City of Rockford. 

For eligible students who live in the City of Rockford and graduate from one of the Rockford Public Schools with a minimum cumulative high school GPA of 3.0, the NIU program guarantees that tuition and general fee costs will be met by gift aid such as grants and scholarships for up to four years at NIU. 

Since the partnership began in the fall of 2021, NIU’s enrollment of freshmen from Rockford Public Schools has grown by more than sixfold, for an average of 112 RPS students enrolled as freshmen in each of the last three years. 

Almanza, a first-generation college student, was among the inaugural freshman class of Rockford Promise Scholars. 

At Rockford East, they had promoted (NIU’s Rockford Promise) during the beginning of my senior year,” Almanza said. I thought it was a great opportunity to continue my education with the tuition paid. I applied and I got accepted, so that was mainly what influenced my choice to go to NIU.” 

Not only did she get accepted, but her grades were so good in high school (nearly straight As) that she received a substantial NIU merit scholarship for four years, along with other financial aid that fully covered her tuition and fees. In the event that a Rockford Promise Scholar’s tuition and fees are not fully covered, a Rockford Promise Scholarship or NIU Rockford Promise Grant will be used to make up the difference. 

Just the reassurance that their tuition and fees will be covered is sometimes enough to make a difference in how students view the attainability of a college education,” says Anne Hardy, director of scholarships and financial advising. 

Hardy notes that Almanza isn’t alone in graduating debt free. One of every three Huskies who earned their undergraduate degrees over three recent semesters graduated with zero loan debt, she says. Hardy adds that NIU’s test-free merit scholarships and programs like the AIM HIGH Huskie Pledge and Rockford Promise at NIU are aimed at increasing access to higher education and tamping down costs for students. 

Almanza says she had graduated near the top of her class at Rockford East and had taken courses in her senior year for college credit. That helped her complete her undergraduate studies in a relatively speedy three years. To further save on college costs, she commuted back and forth from Rockford to NIU, just a 45-minute drive. 

Attending NIU without having to worry about money definitely made me focus more on my studies and put all my effort into it,” Almanza says. Financially, it took the stress off.” 

Almanza, whose parents Maria and Eliseo have been her biggest sources of encouragement and support, says she did take advantage of the mentoring component of the Rockford Promise Program. It helped her learn to manage her time and develop strong study habits. 

She plans to take a gap year and put those study skills to good use as she prepares for the Medical College Admission Test. She also became a licensed emergency medical technician this past year and plans to start working as an EMT during her gap year. 

Her dream, however, is to become a surgeon.