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State Government Requires Schools to Waive Millions

Illinois public universities gave away a record $13.5 million last year in free tuition to more than 1,000 undergraduate and graduate students through a controversial legislative scholarship program, according to the Illinois Board of Higher Education’s annual tuition and fee waivers report.

The 164 members of the Illinois General Assembly who participate in the program doled out 1,571 scholarships in the 2008-2009 school year. That’s up $1 million from the previous year, when lawmakers awarded 1,509 scholarships. Although lawmakers select students, it’s the 12 Illinois state schools that cover the costs.

A ChicagoTalks investigation of the controversial program published late last year 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, working in collaboration with Illinois Statehouse News, 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 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. The average value of a scholarship increased to about $8,600 in 2008-2009.

That means students who have the hardest time paying for college too often get left out, critics say. Supporters 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.

Although lawmakers handed out 62 more scholarships last year over the previous year, an official speaking for the three University of Illinois campuses said the bigger sum came from increased tuition.

The cost shifting is one reason some lawmakers don’t participate.

Rep. Bill Black (R-Danville), one of 14 state lawmakers ChicagoTalks identified last fall as not participating in the century-old program, is hoping this will be the year the legislature does away with the scholarships. Sixteen lawmakers have signed on to Bill HB4633, which Black introduced in the fall. An aide for Illinois Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) said late last year the senator wants to either reform the program or abolish it altogether.

Randy Kangas, the associate vice president of planning and budgeting for the University of Illinois system, has his doubts.

“These bills are put in every year,” he said, “I don’t know how much umph it has in the General Assembly.”

Kangas said the state owes the University of Illinois schools $439 million, and that employees will be taking furlough days to conserve cash. The three schools – University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, University of Illinois at Chicago and University of Illinois at Springfield – waived $9.3 million in tuition for the 2008-2009 year.

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