Someone has to pay for the millions of dollars in scholarships state legislators dole out each year – and that ends up being the rest of the students who attend Illinois’ public universities.
For the 2007-2008 school year – the most recent data available – the state’s public universities gave 1,509 legislative scholarships worth an estimated $12.5 million, according to the Illinois Board of Higher Education. Almost 70 percent – or $8.67 million, according to Randy Kangas, the associate vice president of planning and budgeting for the University of Illinois system – was waived at the three U of I campuses.
Last year, 582 legislative scholarships or tuition waivers were given to students attending the state’s flagship school, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, while 211 waivers went to students studying at the University of Illinois at Chicago and another 21 waivers covered tuition for students at the University of Illinois at Springfield. The legislative waivers come out of each institution’s budget, leading to tuition hikes for the rest of the student body not lucky enough to nab the little-known scholarship.
Not all schools raise tuition to cover waiver costs, but students pay in other ways.
“We are not reimbursed by the state for the cost of the scholarships, so our available spending is reduced,” said Julie DeWees, the budget director for Western Illinois University in Macomb.
Some university officials are reluctant to talk publicly about the century-old scholarship program for fear of angering legislators who decide how much state funding to give universities each year. But some of the 14 lawmakers who choose not to award the scholarships are willing to talk for them.
“It hurts the budget and adds to the reason tuition goes up because it’s an unfunded mandate,” said Rep. Naomi Jakobsson, a Democrat from Urbana whose district includes the University of Illinois.
Each year, every one of the state’s 177 legislators can give two four-year scholarships. But many of the 163 participating lawmakers choose to give eight one-year scholarships to help more students, a team of Columbia College Chicago journalists found in a three-month investigation done in collaboration with Illinois Statehouse News. The winners, chosen by lawmakers or special selection committees they’ve created, get tuition waived by the state school of their choice.
Instead of participating in the program, Jakobsson gives a $500 scholarship to one senior from each high school in her district. The money comes out of Jakobsson’s pocket.
“It’s not hurting anyone but my own budget,” Jakobsson said.
Two other non-participating lawmakers have universities located in their districts. Rep. Jay Hoffman (D-Collinsville) represents Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, while Rep. Lisa Dugan (D-Bradley) represents Governor’s State University.
Rep. Jehan Gordon (D-Peoria) said she cannot in good conscience give the scholarship because other students and their families have to pay the costs.
“I remember what it’s like to be in college and to be struggling,” said Gordon.
Rep. Bill Black (R-Danville) said he does not participate because lawmakers don’t set aside money to pay for them, forcing the public universities to cover the costs.
Kangas said although the numbers for the current academic year aren’t yet final, the three University of Illinois campuses will waive over $9 million in tuition. The Illinois Board of Higher Education is not sure when it will release its annual waiver report for this year.
Like other officials at universities around the state reluctant to publicly criticize the legislative scholarships, Kangas would not say much beyond noting that saving that money would be beneficial but is “not really an option” because “this is state law, and we follow state law.”
Cindi Canary, executive director of the political watchdog group Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, said there is good reason for university officials to say little about the scholarship program, which her group opposes.
“If I was a university administrator, I might be very concerned with the cost benefit analysis. How much will I agitate the legislators in relation to how much of a burden this is?”
In recent years, the state’s public universities have faced funding cuts from the Illinois General Assembly.
Ken Zehnder, the director of state and local relations for Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, said the state used to fund 50 percent of his school’s annual operating costs but now funds only 25 percent. He said with growing pressure put on state resources, lawmakers are forced to pass on the costs to the universities. And that, he said, leads to higher tuition for students.
“Although (the scholarship program) has helped individuals, overall it has appeared to be more of an issue than a benefit,” said Zehnder.
But the benefits for those who get the free tuition are great, say many of the more than 60 scholarship recipients interviewed.
Jamel Darling, a graduate of Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, said the scholarship saved him from having to take out loans. Darling, who got no tuition bills for two years courtesy of Rep. Constance Howard (D-Chicago), said he’s trying encourage his younger brother, who did not receive the scholarship for his freshman year, to reapply.
Tamara Trowers received the scholarship for four years and only had to pay room and board. Trowers was so grateful for the free tuition she volunteered at Howard’s office. She’s also encouraging her younger siblings to apply.
Still, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (D-Orland Park) says, the tuition waivers hurt more than they help.
“Giving four people a gift and having 300 people pay for it, it’s not fair,” said McCarthy, who’s never given the scholarships since being elected in 1997.
Christopher Broaddus, who attended Northern Illinois for two years but didn’t receive a legislative scholarship, agrees.
“Being one of two children to a single mother and having to pay my tuition completely out of loans, (the program) really irks me.”
Laura Lane contributed to this story.
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