Dozens of college graduates receive free tuition each year to dental, law and medical school through the Illinois legislative scholarship program, saving each winner thousands of dollars at the expense of their classmates.
Over the last five years 1,256 legislative scholarships were given to graduate students, worth $17.6 million, according to annual reports compiled by the Illinois Board of Higher Education. Close to 300 recipients were enrolled in dental, law and medical school at eight state universities.
In return, graduate winners are asked to do nothing. That’s in contrast to most full-ride dental, law and medical school scholarships offered around the country that require students to work in underserved areas once they’ve completed their degrees.
“Many places across the country are undersupplied with medical practitioners, particularly primary care doctors, dentists and nurses,” said David Bowman, spokesman for the Health Resources and Service Administration.
The federal agency received $300 million from the recent stimulus act that will be used to expand the number of scholarships offered and grad school loans repaid.
That’s the kind of commitment that should be considered for the Illinois legislative scholarship winners, higher education experts say.
The 163 Illinois legislators who participate in the century-old scholarship program mostly fund undergraduate students who live in their districts. District residency is the only requirement in the state’s scholarship law. In 2007-2008, the most recent data available, 53 lawmakers awarded the more generous graduate scholarships.
Over the last five years, Sen. Iris Martinez (D-Chicago) has given the greatest number of scholarships to graduate students. Since 2003, she’s awarded 20 one-year scholarships for dental, law and medical school students.
“It just so happened” that way, said Sonia Sanchez, a spokeswoman for the senator. Martinez’s scholarship selection committee “may have chosen [graduate students] because their needs are greater,” Sanchez said.
An independent committee chooses the recipients based on financial need, academic achievement, community activism and a desire to give back, Sanchez said, and the senator is not involved in the selection process. The office receives close to 30 applications a year, Sanchez said.
Sens. William Haine (D-Alton) and Kirk Dillard (R-Westmont) appear to be the only two participating legislators who decline to give scholarships to students attending dental, law or medical school, a team of Columbia College Chicago journalists found in a three-month investigation done in collaboration with Illinois Statehouse News.
“It’s too heavy of a burden on schools,” Haine said.
In 2008, 67 medical students at the University of Illinois at Chicago received legislative scholarships worth $2.2 million. Yearly tuition of $33,086 was waived for the legislative scholarship winners, forcing the medical school to make up the difference.
That same year, 18 dentistry students at the University of Illinois at Chicago received fee waivers worth $648,000. Annual tuition costs about $36,000, with an additional $12,000 for fees and instruments.
Students are encouraged to apply for as many scholarships as possible, with recipients awarded as little as $500, said Darryl Pendleton, associate dean for student and diversity affairs at the University of Illinois at Chicago dental school.
But there are “very few” full-ride scholarships available, Pendleton said, noting, “the school receives less tuition revenue because of the [legislative] scholarships.”
Cheon Joo Yoon, a second-year dental student at the school, is a two-time scholarship winner. The 34-year-old South Korean immigrant came to America in 2001 to pursue his dream of becoming a dentist.
“In Korea, I couldn’t get into to dental school, then I got a second chance in the United States . . . Hopefully, I’ll have the chance to provide people in need with free health care,” he said, though the scholarship doesn’t require him to do so.
Henry Sondheimer, senior director of student affairs at the American Association of Medical Colleges, said the scholarships he’s familiar with – those given on merit or financial need – usually require recipients to work in a certain area for a set amount of time after graduation. Smaller states with fewer medical schools tend to require working in areas that have a shortage of doctors, Sondheimer said.
Illinois has no such requirement, though some of Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s colleagues have told him they hope graduate students they’ve selected for the scholarship do something in return for their free tuition.
The Orland Park Democrat refuses to participate in the program. One reason, he says, is the public universities and the rest of the students end up paying for the scholarships. And the value of the scholarships vary drastically, based on whether the student is getting an undergraduate degree or going to graduate school.
Someone could receive a $30,000 scholarship for dental school, McCarthy said, and despite what his colleagues may hope, he notes there’s no guarantee the student will return to the district to pay it back.
Laura Lane contributed to this story.
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