Gretchen Watson got an undergraduate degree and her master’s, too, thanks to the Illinois General Assembly scholarship program. For seven years, Watson, now an elementary school teacher, didn’t have to worry about tuition bills at Northeastern University.
Mary Kate McLoughlin, the daughter of a Chicago precinct captain who works for state comptroller Dan Hynes and a secretary who works for the Chicago Library commissioner, said she knew to apply for a legislative scholarship because her parents “know about these things.” One of her older sisters also got a legislative scholarship.
And John Annes was able to pay for three years of medical school at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The cost to the medical school and the rest of its students? More than $120,000 over three years.
Watson, McLoughlin and Annes were three of more than 60 students a team of Columbia College Chicago journalists interviewed during a three-month investigation done in collaboration with Illinois Statehouse News. In scores of other interviews with legislative staff and lawmakers themselves, ChicagoTalks discovered there’s little regulation of the century-old program with each of the 163 participating lawmakers deciding how to distribute the scholarships, which totaled $12.5 million in 2007-2008.
Because no state agency or central legislative office oversees the program, promotion of the scholarships – worth an average of $8,300 in 2007-2008 – is spotty, with hundreds of applicants applying to one lawmaker and only a handful submitting applications to another legislator. And no one checks whether the scholarship law’s one requirement – that students live in the district of their nominating lawmaker – is followed. It’s left up to each legislator to decide why a student should get the scholarships, so a top student may be selected in one area while a C student gets picked elsewhere.
Rep. Mary Flowers (D-Chicago) doesn’t go by grades because “grades are prejudice,” she said in an interview. Grades can be based on “how you look,” nationality, background, political affiliation, “what side-of-the track” you come from and are subject to interpretation, Flowers said.
Instead, she likes to look at the “human” side. Flowers said she reads the student essay that’s part of her application to get a feel for the person, and she considers how the parents, teachers and neighbors feel about the student. Grades are not the most important thing because there are scholarships for straight-A students, but the high schools are not making other students aware of what’s available to them, the lawmaker said.
Like many of the other 162 participating lawmakers, Flowers will give students, depending on their circumstances, more than one scholarship because she wants to see a student through to graduation day. “What’s the point in me giving out a one-year scholarship?” she asks, if she can help a recipient graduate, adding “there’s always room for give-and-take.”
Higher education experts say that makes sense as long as the legislative scholarships are going to students with great financial need who would not otherwise be able to get a college degree. But lawmakers don’t require applicants to complete the detailed financial aid form that is mandatory for students wanting to get grants and loans through the Illinois Student Assistance Commission.
Higher education experts and political scientists question the fairness of someone like Watson getting seven years of undergraduate and graduate education paid by the state when other equally deserving or even more needy students get nothing at all.
“There probably should be a limit on how many times you can have the scholarship if legislators are going to be allowed to give them,” said Dick Simpson, head of the political science department at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
But Watson, who received legislative scholarships from 2000 through 2006, says she deserved the help because she was a “broke, single white female” when she applied. Rep. Sara Feigenholtz (D-Chicago) awarded her scholarships the first five years, then Rep. John Fritchey (D-Chicago) gave her two more years after she moved into his legislative district.
“I’m not your average student,” said the 46-year-old Watson, who started school when she was 32.
It was nice to get a scholarship because it was “all based on academics” compared with other scholarships she knew about that required the applicant to be “poor, Hispanic or black.”
Watson said she was a waitress making less than $30,000 a year when she attended college. “In all honesty, I might have been able to pay for it,” she said, but for her that would have been “robbing Peter to pay Paul.”
When Annes was applying the first time for his scholarship, he added a lengthy essay –- in addition to the shorter required one — in which he described the premature birth of his daughter earlier that year. Annes said he was lucky to have had health insurance because his daughter’s medical bills topped nearly $200,000. He saw that other parents at the hospital did not have insurance and was moved to address health care reform in his essay to Rep. Fritchey.
Annes thinks the essay may have helped him receive the scholarship, which he felt “blessed” to get. It’s “been good for me [and] my family.”
He understands the medical school and the rest of its students absorbed the cost of his legislative scholarships: “If I was more altruistic, I might say, ‘I don’t want the scholarship.’”
McLoughlin, a speech pathology major at Illinois State University, received her free tuition from Rep. Kevin Joyce (D-Chicago) in 2008. She didn’t reapply for the scholarship because “they try to give it to different people each year to help out other families.”
Her advice for other students hoping to get a year — or more — of free college tuition: “I would say for high school — be really involved and volunteer at [the] 19th Ward,” she said. “Get your name out there.”
Stacey Alletto and Nicole Leonhardt contributed to this story.
Other stories from Day Two:
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