Efforts to abolish the century-old Illinois General Assembly scholarship program have proven unsuccessful in the past, but outside of eliminating it altogether, higher education and financial aid experts say there are ways to improve it.
They recommend a number of changes, from developing a consistent set of standards in choosing the winners to lawmakers being more upfront in financing the program.
“Given the state’s recent history, both at the governor’s office and U of I, serious consideration should be given to the elimination or radical restructuring of the program,” says Andrew Gillen, research director at the Center for College Affordability and Productivity in Washington, D.C.
Of the 163 lawmakers who participate, each uses a unique set of criteria to select the 1,500-some winners each year. Many legislators say they choose winners based on academic achievement, community service and financial need, but in some cases, less conventional criteria is used, like requiring applicants or their parents be registered to vote.
Whichever criteria they use, a majority of lawmakers have created independent committees to choose the winners – and to distance themselves from the controversial program, which exists in one form or another in a handful of states.
Kent Redfield, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield, believes adopting best practices that each legislator would adhere to during the selection process could go a long way to making it a more objective program.
“You want some kind of set of rules that will establish transparency, eliminate conflict of interest and establish current, clear criteria for which this committee will make a decision,” he says.
Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of FinAid.org, suggests the criteria be solely need-based. He believes the primary objective of a public scholarship should be to “enable students who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford a college education.”
Zakiya Smith, policy adviser in the office of the undersecretary at the U.S. Department of Education, says the Obama administration’s focus is on sending students to college who can’t afford it.
“We don’t think it’s a good use from a public policy perspective to give grant money to people who were going to go to college regardless of the money,” she says.
There is no one agency or office that regulates the program, which experts say would be one way to ferret out abuse. The Illinois State Board of Education merely processes the paperwork of the scholarship winners and is not required to do any vetting of the applicants, said agency spokeswoman Mary Fergus.
Another challenge is making sure enough people know about the program and apply.
A team of Columbia College Chicago journalists, in collaboration with Illinois Statehouse News, contacted all 177 legislative offices and found that many do little or no publicizing of the scholarships, which in 2007-2008 were worth an average of $8,300. A number of legislative offices have no information at all about the scholarship on their web sites. Some lawmakers said they rely on high school guidance counselors to get the word out, while others said because the program has been around for so long, everyone knows to apply.
But Kantrowitz doesn’t believe the program has been publicized properly and notes there is no centralized place for students to apply – they have to contact their representative or senator. He suggests promoting the program on large national scholarship databases.
And he thinks the Illinois Student Assistance Commission is the “logical organization to actually run something like this.”
That’s because the state agency already serves as the main clearinghouse for college students looking for ways to pay for college. It promotes the legislative scholarship program on its web site but not in its brochures.
Paul Palian, director of communications, says it’s not his agency’s program to advertise, and the only financial aid promoted outside of its web site is what the Illinois Student Assistance Commission administers itself.
Cindi Canary, executive director of the watchdog group Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, wants the program abolished but says if it must continue, more transparency is needed because the legislative scholarships are “an incredibly valuable perk.”
“It’s not based on need or merit but on the whims of the legislator (who) gives it out,” Canary says. “There is a fundamental lack of equity at a level that I think most people understand.”
Canary suggests requiring all legislators publicize the program and establish an independent screening committee. And she wants each lawmaker to announce the names of the winners and losers, so people can determine for themselves if legislators are showing favoritism to campaign donors, political allies or other supporters.
Another main complaint: The program’s cost – roughly $12.5 million in 2007-2008, the most recent data available – falls to the universities and ultimately other students at each of the public institutions.
Rep. Bill Black (R-Danville), a long-time opponent who describes the program as “ripe for trouble,” believes the General Assembly should allocate money for the program rather than pushing the costs onto the universities.
He’s not the only one.
“Wishful thinking doesn’t make money grow on trees,” says FinAid.org’s Kantrowitz. “If you’re going to create a scholarship program, you should fund it.”
But Andy Shaw, executive director of the local watchdog group Better Government Association, doesn’t think enough can be done to improve the program.
“The solution is to pass better laws,” he says. “Unfortunately, you can’t pass better laws until you have a better legislature.”
Stacey Alletto, Laura Lane and Nicole Leonhardt contributed to this story.
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