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updated: 1/13/2012 3:54 PM

Suburban lawmakers continue push to abolish scholarship program

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  • Legislators are grappling with the idea of abolishing General Assembly scholarships for students attending state schools, like the University of Illinois in Urbana.

    Legislators are grappling with the idea of abolishing General Assembly scholarships for students attending state schools, like the University of Illinois in Urbana.
    Associated Press file photo

By Ryan Voyles

SPRINGFIELD -- What some suburban lawmakers view as a financially burdensome program riddled with ethical problems, Salvador Cardenas of Aurora sees as a blessing.

Cardenas is a dentistry student at the University of Illinois Chicago and one of hundreds who received a General Assembly Scholarship last year.

Lawmakers every year can give tuition waivers to constituents heading to state universities.

"You hear a lot of things about politicians wanting to help, but this is actual proof to me that they do care and they do want to help," Cardenas said.

But some suburban lawmakers are ready this year to once again push to eliminate the controversial program, which opponents say is ripe for abuse.

Others, though, continue to tout the program as an important community benefit, so it's possible the effort may stall once again this spring.

Rep. Sandra Pihos, a Glen Ellyn Republican, is sponsoring one of several proposals in Springfield to eliminate the tuition waivers, saying the cost to universities and past abuses make abolishing it important.

"It's became apparent the distribution of those scholarships has become a burden on the universities," she said.

The scholarships aren't paid for with state money. Instead, the program waives tuition, leaving universities to cover the cost of a student's education.

The value of the waivers differs according to school and course of study. An undergraduate's tuition and fees at the University of Illinois, for example, are about $14,000 to $19,000 per year, according to the school's website. Thus for students receiving the scholarships -- whether for one year or all four -- the savings are significant.

The program has long been controversial, as lawmakers have sometimes awarded scholarships to friends and political allies. One 2009 Associated Press investigation, for example, showed at least 41 scholarships between 2004 and 2009 were given to campaign contributors and an additional 42 went to relatives of politically connected people.

While some lawmakers have tried in the past to reform or end the program, little has changed.

Now, a growing number of lawmakers are getting behind the effort. Just this week, two suburban Republicans, Reps. Ed Sullivan of Mundelein and Kent Gaffney of Lake Barrington, announced they would no longer hand out the waivers.

Opposition has grown not only in the suburbs but statewide, where 77 of the state's 177 lawmakers did not give scholarships last year. That's up from 40 in 2010.

But Rep. Sidney Mathias, an Arlington Heights Republican, said the program is a chance to help the community.

"There is a need in the community," Mathias said. "I meet with the winners, and time and time again, I've had comments from winners and their parents that they would not have been able to attend even a state university without that scholarship."

However, Mathias understands the criticisms of the program and is evaluating whether he will continue to award scholarships this year.

In the last two years, lawmakers have sent Gov. Pat Quinn proposals to reform the system, putting more restrictions on who can get the waivers.

Quinn prefers the program be eliminated entirely. And that gridlock with lawmakers has prevented both abolition of the program and attempts at reform.

Now, legislators can give free tuition to constituents equal to two four-year scholarships at any state university. Lawmakers can split the awards, awarding up to eight one-year scholarships a year.

A recent report from the Illinois Board of Higher Education reveals the cost to universities is significant. The most recent numbers show the waivers cost $13.9 million in the 2009-2010 school year.

At Northern Illinois University in Dekalb, 48 students received the scholarships this year, at a cost of $357,394 to the university. The number is down from the 88 students who received scholarships in the 2010-2011 year, at a cost of $585,293.

For students like Cardenas, however, who received scholarships in 2011 from Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia and Sen. Linda Holmes, both Aurora Democrats, the elimination of the program would add to the pain of skyrocketing tuition costs.

"Removing it is not going to solve any problems, if anything it will cause more problems," Cardenas said.

Senate President John Cullerton, a powerful Chicago Democrat, would rather reform the program than eliminate it, said spokeswoman Rikeesha Phelon.

"There are a number of worthy and qualified constituents in members' districts who are deserving of scholarships," she said. "He would rather see the program reformed than abolished and taken away from the students."

Sullivan acknowledges the good the program has done. But the economy makes it a tougher sell.

"I have participated in this program since I was first elected, and many deserving students have benefited from these scholarships," Sullivan said. "However, in these tough economic times, tough decisions have to be made."

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