Area high school counselors psyched about UI's new free-tuition offer

Area high school counselors psyched about UI's new free-tuition offer

More than 75 percent of the students at Danville High School qualify for free or subsidized school lunch based on their family income.

So word that the University of Illinois will offer free tuition to any student with a household income below $61,000 who gains admission to the UI was more than good news for college counselor Amanda Campbell.

"That's awesome," Campbell said Tuesday after learning about the UI's new "Illinois Commitment" program, which takes effect for freshmen entering in fall 2019.

"A lot of our students probably don't even apply because of the cost," Campbell said.

Under the program, the UI will promise eight semesters of free tuition and fees up front to any qualified Illinois student whose household income is below $61,000 a year, the current state household median income. Transfer students will be covered for up to six semesters. Students must be under age 24 and have family assets valued at less than $50,000 to qualify, not counting their home.

The offer is an effort to remove uncertainty about financial aid and get students to apply who may have been scared off by the UI's full-cost price of more than $30,000 a year.

UI tuition and mandatory fees combined range from just over $15,000 to more than $20,000 a year, plus room and board, books and other costs.

Many students in that income bracket end up receiving substantial financial aid from state, federal and UI need-based grants already, but this would guarantee full coverage for tuition and fees up front, UI officials said.

"It's a great opportunity," said Tony Tanner, college counselor at Champaign Central High School, who believes it will encourage more students to apply to Illinois.

At Central, 90 seniors applied to the UI last year, 60 were admitted and 41 enrolled, Tanner said. A large number of students also go to Parkland College in Champaign, and they could qualify for Illinois Commitment as transfer students, he said. About 46 percent of Central's students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

"I think it's going to be great for Champaign County and East Central Illinois in general," Tanner said. "As a flagship for Illinois, it's going to help keep our students in Illinois, and hopefully, it will help our students after they graduate stay in Illinois."

Campbell estimated that at least 15 students in the top 10 percent of Danville's senior class would qualify, based on income, and would "definitely" be interested "knowing that their tuition would be paid for."

Other universities offer similar programs. The University of Michigan announced its "Go Blue Guarantee" program a year ago for students with family incomes up to $65,000.

And Yale University just sent Campbell and other high school counselors a request asking for the names of students in the top 10 percent of their class who might qualify for tuition waivers, based on income.

Yale "might be a little intimidating for some students," Campbell said, but the UI program will definitely have appeal. A lot of her students don't even consider the UI now, choosing to go to Danville Area Community College first to save money, she said.

"We're lucky that it's right here, but I think a lot of them would take advantage of this if they could," she said.

Campbell and Tanner will be meeting with seniors next week to start college planning, and both said they would highlight the new program then and during upcoming financial-aid workshops for families.

"In terms of finances, it's going to reduce their debt as Illinois graduates," Tanner said. "That's always a topic with families, the amount of debt a student will graduate with."

Tim Lybarger, college counselor at Mahomet-Seymour High School, said students across the state could benefit.

"I just look at the kids who have the potential but just not the finances. This is huge for them," Lybarger said. "With college not getting any cheaper, how many people are discouraged from pursuing whatever they're capable of doing and pursuing their futures because of the cost? If that's been the only thing holding people back, then gosh, this is a fantastic opportunity."

To save money, some of Lybarger's students pursue the Parkland Pathways program, which guarantees admission to the UI if they maintain a strong GPA. Illinois Commitment provides another option for students who "couldn't afford a straight path to the U of I," he said. "There's so much potential out there."

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