The Illinois General Assembly scholarship doesn’t work like other scholarships.
Some students win it because they have the right connections. Others don’t face much competition for the award – a year of free tuition at one of 12 public universities in Illinois. And several recipients don’t even meet the one requirement of the state’s century-old scholarship law – residency in the district of the lawmaker who gave them the tuition waivers worth thousands of dollars apiece.
A three-month investigation by a team of Columbia College Chicago journalists done in collaboration with Illinois Statehouse News found repeated instances of scholarships being awarded to campaign donors, politically connected families and, in at least one instance, a lawmaker’s relative. The journalists also identified five legislators who require scholarship applicants to register to vote, a practice one constitutional lawyer called illegal.
There’s virtually no regulation of the scholarship program; it’s left up to each of the 163 lawmakers who choose to participate to police themselves. The odds of winning a scholarship vary widely, depending on which district a student lives in and whether a lawmaker chooses to publicize the lucrative awards, worth an average of $8,300 in 2007-2008. That means students who have the hardest time paying for college too often get left out, critics say.
Supporters of the program say it’s helped thousands of students attend college over the decades. And they note that legislators take pains to ensure the selection process is as fair as possible, requiring students to fill out applications and using special committees in many cases to choose the winners.
Sen. Chris Lauzen (R-Aurora) said he doesn’t make the selections himself, wanting to maintain separation from the process so no one can question the program.
“I don’t want to touch it with a 10-foot pole,” the Aurora Republican said.
But all it took for Lauzen to get involved in one case was a phone call from student James Hinterlong’s father to the senator’s administrative assistant. Without filling out an application, Hinterlong was awarded a summer scholarship by Lauzen in 2008 to attend the University of Illinois at Chicago. Hinterlong said another phone call earned him a second summer scholarship the following year.
The Elgin resident said he may have received the award because of his personal connections, explaining the summer scholarships are basically leftover money from the fall and spring funds. Though that leftover money could have been given to students who had applied and not been selected, Hinterlong bypassed them.
Lauzen confirmed that he approved Hinterlong’s scholarships without having him complete an application but insisted he doesn’t know the family.
Hinterlong is the grandson of former Aurora Ald. Kenneth Hinterlong Sr. who served on the Kane County Republican Precinct committee with Lauzen’s wife. James Hinterlong’s dad, Kenneth Hinterlong Jr., is the cousin of a current Naperville city councilman, Paul Hinterlong.
And James is not the only Hinterlong who received a summer scholarship from Lauzen. One of his cousins did, too.
Too often, the legislative scholarships – which are actually tuition waivers paid by each university – go to students who know the right people, critics say.
“They’re given out in many districts by political clout or favoritism,” said Dick Simpson, head of the department of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a former Chicago alderman. “Sometimes even to the children of state legislators, although that happens less frequently now.”
Kelly Durkin of Downers Grove, who received a year of free tuition in 2008 to attend the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign from Sen. Kirk Dillard (R-Westmont), said she found out about the program from her dad, who learned about it through her uncle, Rep. Jim Durkin (R-Countryside).
Emily McDevitt also learned of the scholarship through a family connection. The Buffalo Grove resident said her parents are close friends of Rep. Mark Beaubien (R-Wauconda), who told them about the program. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign student received two years of free tuition in 2007 and 2008 from Sen. Terry Link (D-Lake Bluff).
Not all students are quite so lucky, and those most in need of financial help do not have the same connections, said Cindi Canary, executive director of the watchdog group Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.
“You do a good job in school, but you’re not [from] a politically active family, maybe you’re from an economically marginal family – you’re that much more likely to not know the routes to get education in this state,” Canary said. “It’s set up to benefit insiders.”
And sometimes, scholarships appear to come with strings attached. In several cases, scholarship winners reported being asked to campaign or volunteer for the lawmaker after being selected.
Chicago resident Megan Dunne, a recipient of four consecutive scholarships, said she was asked by someone in Rep. Edward Acevedo’s (D-Chicago) office to make calls for donations. Dunne, along with a friend and fellow recipient, agreed.
“They were soliciting people to call to try and get sponsors and stuff like that,” Dunne said. “We both owed that to them.”
Dunne received a scholarship for three consecutive years at University of Illinois at Chicago and just received her fourth for Eastern Illinois University in 2008, after transferring.
Acevedo did not respond to calls requesting comment.
Rep. Mike Boland (D-East Moline) asked at least two scholarship winners from his office to march in a Memorial Day parade with him. One of the students, William Thorndike, who received a scholarship in 2006 and 2007 to attend the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, described the parade as an unpleasant experience, saying it was hot and he didn’t know anyone. Thorndike went on to receive a summer semester scholarship in 2007 and a full year in 2008 to attend Western Illinois.
The other student asked to march with Boland, Nick Schroder of East Moline, received scholarships from the representative in 2007 and 2008 to attend Illinois State University. Schroder said he also campaigned door-to-door for the representative.
Boland confirmed the students had been asked to march in parades with him but denied that anyone had been asked to campaign door-to-door.
In 2006, the Quad-City Times reported that Boland gave scholarships to the daughter of his largest individual campaign contributor, Barb Suehl. Suehl gave $15,891 to Boland’s campaign in 2005 and 2006, and Suehl’s daughter, Alleyene, received a free ride to Western Illinois University starting in 2005. After two years, she transferred to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and her scholarship from Boland followed.
Jennifer Ernst, who recently graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, received four years of free tuition from Rep. Karen May (D-Highland Park). “Most scholarships don’t work like that,” she acknowledged.
Ernst said the lawmaker calls her every year, enlisting her help with the 4th of July parade. So each year Ernst and her mom volunteer. Once, her dad even baked an apple pie for one of May’s events. Her parents have also donated to May’s office, Ernst said.
“Legislators definitely do use this [scholarship] as part of their overall strategy to develop positive relations with their constituents,” said Richard A. Wandling, a political science professor at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston. “I think it’s important that the state assists its younger generation going to college . . . but this is not a good way to do it. It’s an open invitation to political mischief.”
Still, the program’s defenders insist every applicant has a chance to win a tuition waiver. But students have to know about the scholarships in order to apply. Several of the 64 scholarship winners interviewed by the ChicagoTalks team agreed the program isn’t promoted enough.
“People were often surprised when I had earned it because most people have never heard of it,” said Spring Grove’s Ashley Eberle, a Western Illinois graduate. Eberle received free tuition for three years in a row from Rep. JoAnn Osmond (R-Antioch). “The legislature doesn’t do a great job at publicizing the scholarship.”
Not many of the lawmakers have posted scholarship information on their web sites. Rep. Sandy Cole (R-Grayslake) offered one explanation: some lawmakers do not know how to update a web page or use e-mail because of their age.
An aide for Rep. Kay Hatcher said the Yorkville Republican doesn’t put information on her web site because too many students out of district would apply for the free tuition.
Several legislators said they assumed people knew about the scholarships, and others said it is up to the high school guidance counselors in their districts to make sure students know about the tuition waivers.
“High school counselors, if they’re doing their job, should be aware,” said Rep. Daniel Beiser (D-Alton), whose office doesn’t promote the scholarship in any way.
When asked where more information on the program could be found, Beiser responded, “I don’t know, I’m not aware of a specific web site for that.”
Rep. Connie Howard (D-Chicago) also does not publicize the program because, after 15 years in office, “everybody in the area knows to come in and call.” Howard hosts a reception for all applicants, whether or not they win. Donated items such as luggage, clocks, dictionaries and gift certificates are given to the losing applicants because the Chicago Democrat likes to recognize everyone who applied. Last year, she reported receiving 28 applications.
“None of the state reps publicize it,” said Ken Lipinski, legislative assistant for Rep. Michael Zalewski (D-Summit), because most people know about it.
However, Rep. Bill Black (R-Danville), who stopped handing out the scholarships in 1995 and has been pushing ever since to abolish them, said it’s not in a legislator’s best interest to publicize the program.
“It would bring in more applications from non-contributors and non-friends,” the Danville Republican said. “The more applicants a lawmaker gets, the harder it is to have influence over who wins the scholarships.”
Rep. Patricia Bellock (R-Westmont) said most students in her district find out about the free tuition by word-of-mouth.
That’s not how it should work, especially when public money is involved, critics say.
“The thing that really rubs me wrong about these scholarships is you’ve got to know how the system works to know about them,” Canary said. “It’s not based on need or merit but on the whims of the… legislator.”
To avoid the appearance of impropriety, some lawmakers choose to distance themselves from the process by appointing selection committees.
“Because of the controversy surrounding these scholarships, I never look at the scholarships as they come in. I do not see the application at all until the committee has chosen the winners,” said Rep. Richard Myers (R-Macomb).
Myers gets involved only at the end, when it comes time to notify the winners. He makes the calls.
It still doesn’t sit right with Rep. Black: “I’m not naïve. Even if you have a committee, you can influence the committee.”
A majority of the participating lawmakers appoint a committee to pick the winners. But little public information about these committees is available, so it’s impossible to determine whether they’re truly independent.
Time after time, lawmakers or their aides declined to provide details about the selection panels. Some offices told reporters they did not have to, while others said they wanted to protect committee members’ privacy.
The lone exception: Rep. Esther Golar (D-Chicago) freely offered the names and occupations of her committee members without hesitation.
The secrecy surrounding the committee is another reason critics say the publicly funded tuition waivers should be overhauled or eliminated.
“The scholarship should be funded; it should have some strict, strong guidelines behind it,” Black said. “Let those who know how to administer scholarships administer the scholarships, not lawmakers.”
Stacey Alletto, Karlie Baker, Emily Capdevielle, Jay Grooms, Laura Lane, Shawna Lent, Nicole Leonhardt, Nicholas Myers, Jeremie Benoit Rosley and Sean Stillmaker contributed to this story.
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