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I recently asked a member of my family to partake in a word association exercise. I asked her to write down all the words triggered by the phrase “Jesuit education” in 15 seconds. As a fellow alumna of a Jesuit university, she predictably came up with words like “Catholic,” “God,” and “social justice.” However, she also wrote down the word “elite.” Students at Jesuit universities are taught to be “men and women for others” who venture out to the margins to serve those most in need; however, the institutions themselves rarely make such journeys. Costly tuition fees have put Jesuit universities largely off-limits to all but the most privileged members of society. Arrupe College of Loyola University Chicago is trying to change that.

Arrupe College was founded in 2015 as the first Jesuit community college to offer a two-year associate degree program in liberal arts. Those who enroll are mostly first-generation students living in and around Chicago with limited financial resources but an interest in attending a four-year institution. Through a combination of fundraising, grants, and financial aid, admitted students need only pay roughly $2,000 a year in tuition.[1]

Karen Del Valle

Karen Del Valle and Pamela Martínez Ruiz are students at Arrupe College studying Social and Behavioral Sciences. Neither are DACA-recipients, but they are both active members of the Dreamers & Allies Student Organization at Arrupe. Although they have a long road ahead of them, Karen and Pamela have already overcome significant obstacles. Both were born and raised in Mexico and migrated to the United States as teenagers five years ago. With Spanish as a first language, they are part of a growing cohort of English Learners (ELs) in the United States. According to the 2019 report Building a Grad Nation: Progress and Challenges in Raising High School Graduation Rates by Civic, a bipartisan public policy firm in Washington, D.C., and the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, ELs have a high school graduation rate of 66.4 percent – the second-lowest rate of all groups analyzed in the report.[2]

There is no question that higher levels of education are correlated with numerous positive life outcomes such as higher lifetime earnings, greater longevity, and decreased rates of chronic illnesses. However, there remain significant gender and racial gaps when it comes to reaching and completing higher education. According to the 2018 report Educational Attainment of Chicago Public Schools Students by the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research, of all Latinos and Latinas who completed ninth grade in 2018, only 14 percent and 24 percent, respectively, will have a bachelor’s degree within 10 years. As a point of comparison, 34 percent of White young men and 53 percent of White young women who graduated from Chicago public schools the same year are expected to obtain a degree from a four-year institution within the same timeframe.[3]

Pamela Martinez Ruiz

Both Pamela and Karen cited cost as the main prohibitive factor when seeking opportunities in higher education. “While education was one of the most important things to me growing up, I did not know if I was going to be able to pursue higher education because of my family’s income,” says Pamela. As a green card holder, Pamela had limited opportunities for financial aid; however, the situation was even more dire for Karen who is undocumented. While education through grade 12 is guaranteed for all children and young adults in the United States, many undocumented students face significant barriers to achieving higher education. There is no uniformity in the way public colleges and universities treat undocumented students. Many institutions charge out-of-state tuition, which is several times the in-state tuition rate. Undocumented students are not eligible for federal financial aid.[4] “Education was always an important part of my growing up,” says Karen, “But as an undocumented student, I knew the chance of pursuing higher education was about 1 percent. Also, my parents couldn’t afford it, especially since my sister is also in college.”

Although it may be the most obvious, finances are certainly not the only challenge facing Pamela, Karen, and other students at Arrupe College. Some of these challenges have resurfaced during the coronavirus pandemic, highlighting once again how the virus is disproportionately impacting immigrants and other low-income individuals. For example, Karen used to be able to get her work done on campus, but with most buildings now closed, she’s forced to try and figure out new study habits in the small home her parents rent. “COVID has affected my studies in different ways. There are four to six people living in my house at any given time and it’s a struggle to find space to study. Sometimes I cannot concentrate.” As she has throughout her life, Pamela focuses on a phrase she’s heard since childhood to help her get through these difficult times.  “As my mother says, ‘Vale más paso que dure, y no trote que canse,’” which loosely translates to “slow and steady wins the race.”

Both young women are sure that with an education from Arrupe College, they will be prepared for whatever comes next. For Pamela, that will be enrollment at a four-year institution where she plans to major in Biology or Chemistry. “After that,” she says, “I want to go to medical school and become a pediatric oncologist.” As an undocumented student, the future is a bit hazier for Karen. “My wish is to graduate from a four-year university with a bachelor’s degree in Psychology, however, as an [undocumented] immigrant, I must be prepared for anything to happen. Today, I am here in the U.S. studying, but tomorrow I might not be.”

Despite all the challenges it still faces, Arrupe College is a model that appears to be working. Nationally, 13 percent of community college students graduate in two years; however, at Arrupe that figure hovers around 50 percent.[5] Nonetheless, Arrupe’s greatest accomplishment may be the sense of dignity it provides its students – an essential ingredient for all professional and personal successes. Past failures or struggles in students’ lives, many of which are the result of circumstance rather than ability, prompted most institutions of higher learning to pass over Arrupe students, considering them more trouble than they are worth. Not so with Arrupe College, which remains remarkably counter-cultural. It refuses to submit to a dominant political culture that deems certain lives, particularly those of immigrants, as less worthy than others. Today, a school like Arrupe College that unequivocally stands on the side of the marginalized is more important than ever.

[1] Doster, Adam. “Arrupe College Comes Full Circle.” Loyola University Chicago – Arrupe,

[2] Atwell, Matthew N, et al. “2019 Building A Grad Nation: Progress and Challenge in Raising High School Graduation Rates.” America’s Promise, Civic and the Everyone Graduates Center at the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University, 2019,

[3] Nagaoka, Jenny, and Alex Seeskin. “The Educational Attainment of Chicago Public Schools Students.” UChicago Consortium on School Research, Nov. 2019,

[4] “Basic Facts About In-State Tuition.” National Immigration Law Center, 14 Apr. 2020,

[5] Doster, Adam. “Arrupe College Comes Full Circle.” Loyola University Chicago – Arrupe,