A new bill in Springfield seeks to revive “legislative scholarships” — a controversial tuition waiver program that was eliminated in 2012 after Better Government Association investigations uncovered significant abuse.
House Bill 279, introduced by state Rep. Thaddeus Jones, D-Calumet City, would grant each legislative member six tuition waivers for students in their districts — four more waivers per legislator than provided by the former program. (The four additional waivers would be for a single year.)
What the bill does not provide is a funding mechanism — it forces universities to absorb the costs of the waivers. The former version of the program cost the state an average of $13 million per year.
The BGA investigations into the former program, which was abolished by Gov. Pat Quinn in 2012, uncovered frequent rule violations, such as legislators granting tuition waivers to students who did not live in their districts. Investigations also uncovered waivers granted to students from politically connected families; this included students whose parents donated money to legislators, and students who were family members of political workers.
Illinois already has a straightforward needs-based grant program to assist students attending any higher education institution in the state: the Monetary Award Program, commonly referred to as MAP grants.
MAP eligibility is determined by family income. The greater the need, the larger the grant — up to $4,720 for full-time enrollment. However, since the beginning of the budget impasse in 2015, there have been periods of no funding for the program. Now, with the expiration of a stopgap budget and with no state budget to replace it, there is no prospect of funding for MAP grants.
To make matters worse, overall revenues of public higher education institutions have also been hit by the budget impasse, and institutions attempting to credit students who would have received MAP grants face diminishing funds to do so.
A recent report by the National Center for Education Statistics highlights that Illinois is losing an average of 10,000 students per year to neighboring states. The record number is due to worries about rising tuition costs across public universities in Illinois. A lack of a budget has led to uncertainties around financial planning as well.
We agree that students need assistance, especially students from low-income communities. But instead of reviving — and extending — a problematic program, the focus should be on creating and passing a balanced budget in order to fully fund these MAP grants which, in 2015, assisted 128,000 students.
It’s clear. The BGA opposes HB 279.