The millions of dollars in scholarships Illinois lawmakers hand out each year to high school graduates in their districts could be better spent on students who couldn’t otherwise afford to go to college, higher education experts say. They recommend the General Assembly scholarships be used to target the state’s poorest students.
Zakiya Smith, policy adviser in the office of the under secretary at the U.S. Department of Education, says giving grant money to people who would have otherwise gone to college is not cost-effective.
David Longanecker, the president of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education in Boulder, Colo., says if he were in charge, he would take the $12.5 million spent in 2007-2008 on legislative scholarships and put it toward the Illinois Monetary Award program. It would be better if Illinois lawmakers gave the needy a chance to go to college rather than reward wealthy kids for doing well, Longanecker said.
He said nationwide, the best programs for helping low-income students include the Indiana 21st Century Scholars Program, the Oklahoma Promise Program and the Oregon Shared Responsibility Program because each provides incentives for students to attend college and complete their degree.
There are no graduation incentives in the Illinois’ General Assembly Scholarship program. And because neither the legislature nor state education officials track the recipients, it’s unknown if the program actually increases the number of college graduates.
Last year, about 145,000 students received an Illinois Monetary Award, or MAP grant, through the Illinois Student Assistance Commission. The average MAP grant – which can be used for tuition and fees, but not for housing, food or transportation – totaled $2,637.
That same year, the Illinois General Assembly awarded 1,509 legislative scholarships each worth an average of $8,300. But unlike the MAP grants, which require students to complete a detailed financial aid application, few legislators require applicants to list their family income or submit other related information.
One who does — Rep. Jack McGuire (D-Joliet) — said helping needy students is a priority for him.
“What I try to do is look at the family income and how many kids they have in school . . . and see what kind of financial situation people are in,” McGuire said. “I think that’s the best way to do it, at least that’s the way I do it.”
McGuire is one of 163 lawmakers who participate in the scholarship program out of the 177-member General Assembly, a team of Columbia College Chicago journalists found. Each legislator decides which criteria, like grades or financial need, to use when selecting the winners, and even whether to use an application form at all, with some merely requiring a letter from the applicant.
It’s not good public policy to have so many different ways to select scholarship recipients for the same program, experts say. And they question why some legislators prohibit winners from applying for other financial aid, like the federal Pell Grant or the Illinois MAP grant. That extra money could help needy students pay for room, board and other indirect expenses not covered by the legislative scholarship.
“If you received a Pell Grant or any other tuition waivers, you’re ineligible,” said Rep. Frank J. Mautino (D-Spring Valley).
An aide in Sen. Mike Jacobs (D-East Moline) office said the MAP grant does the same thing as the legislative scholarship, so students have to choose between the two. Jacobs’ office asks students if they received a MAP grant before awarding them a legislative scholarship.
Even some of the 60-plus scholarship winners the Columbia team interviewed during a three-month investigation done in collaboration with Illinois Statehouse News say it would make sense for all lawmakers to consider a student’s financial need when awarding the free tuition.
“A lot of people who win scholarships are not as high need as other students,” said Daniel Roseland, a sophomore at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who received a scholarship in 2008 from Sen. Gary Dahl (R- Peru). “I definitely think people who need the financial aid more should be getting that.”
Besides the legislative scholarship, Roseland also received a math scholarship and a need-based scholarship through his high school. Dahl, like some other lawmakers, allows legislative winners to apply for other financial aid. Still, Roseland ended up having to pay a couple thousand dollars out of pocket last year.
“I thought about reapplying, and we were told a lot of times schools don’t give you as much money because you’re on those scholarships,” Roseland said.
This year, Roseland, whose mom works for the Grundy County state’s attorney and whose dad is deceased, is paying for his education through financial aid, including a Pell and MAP grant. His out-of-pocket costs? Just $300 or so.
Laura Lane contributed to this story.
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