UI planning to offer $20,000 Aim High scholarships to 300 students

UI planning to offer $20,000 Aim High scholarships to 300 students

SPRINGFIELD — Several hundred high-achieving Illinois freshmen could receive scholarships from the University of Illinois next fall as part of a new state-sponsored merit program.

The UI plans to provide the $5,000 annual awards — or $20,000 over four years — through the new Aim High program, funded by $5 million from the state and $5 million in matching funds from the university.

But uncertainty about how the state money can be spent could require lawmakers to tweak the new law in the General Assembly's lame-duck session in early January, officials said.

Statewide, the Aim High program will provide $25 million for merit-based scholarships next year at Illinois public universities to keep top students in Illinois and reduce student loan debt.

The money is allocated proportionally to each school based on enrollment, with about $5 million headed to the UI's Urbana campus, the state's largest.

"The original plan was you spend it or you lose it" each year, said Kevin Pitts, vice provost for undergraduate education at the UI.

But the scholarships are designed to be renewable for four years, so "if you do it that way, you can't spend all the money in the first year," Pitts said.

"If we were to spend all $5 million on the freshmen, we'd have to spend that whole $5 million on them again next year, as sophomores," leaving no money for the next class of students, Pitts said.

Pitts said university officials asked the Illinois Student Assistance Commission, which administers the financial-aid program, to work with legislators to tweak the wording, so schools could carry over some of the money for the first few years until it's fully implemented.

They want the flexibility to use a quarter of the state's money this year, or $1.25 million, and set aside the rest for the students' sophomore, junior and senior years. Then they'd use next year's state allocation to award scholarships to another round of students.

"Instead of giving a massive amount in one shot, then waiting four years, that would allow us to smooth it out. This way, we'd have a more sustainable scholarship program," Pitts said.

The bill was drafted by the Higher Education Working Group, a bipartisan group of 12 Illinois legislators that includes Sen. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet.

Rose said the group is amenable to the changes, noting it's a problem for all state universities.

The issue arose between the two fall veto sessions, during Thanksgiving week, which made it difficult to get legislators together to approve new wording, he said.

Some members weren't happy with the first draft, as they wanted more safeguards to ensure the money is spent on scholarships and nothing else, Rose said. They decided to wait until the lame-duck session that starts Jan. 7, he said.

'Best and the brightest'

For now, the UI is assuming it will have the flexibility to carry over the money for the first few years and plans to give the scholarships to about 300 incoming freshmen next fall, Pitts said. Some scholarships could also be awarded to new transfer students.

The UI could have provided smaller awards to a larger number of students, but officials said they wanted to make the amount substantial enough to sway a student who might otherwise hesitate to choose the UI because of cost.

Getting $20,000 over four years can "change their thinking in terms of whether or not this education is affordable," Pitts said, noting those students could get other scholarships as well.

"That's awesome," Rose said. "The whole point of Aim High is to make those 300 kids be the best and the brightest in Illinois who are currently leaving Illinois" because they're getting better offers from Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and even Alabama, he said.

"When your rankings are based on your incoming freshman class's raw ACT (score) and GPA, picking up some additional 33 or 34 ACT kids would be really good at the Urbana campus" and help other state universities as well, he said.

February notifications

Andy Borst, UI director of undergraduate admissions, said the scholarships will be awarded to the top 5 percent of qualifying in-state freshmen admitted to each college who meet other Aim High requirements.

Students must be full-time undergraduates who attended an Illinois high school and whose families earn no more than six times the federal poverty level — for example, $147,600 for a family of four.

There's no separate application for the Aim High scholarships, but students do have to submit a Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known by its acronym, FAFSA, by Jan. 5, Borst said.

Scholarship winners will likely be notified sometime in February, Pitts said. The notification may be separate from other scholarship awards because the school has to verify income levels through FAFSA, he said.

"It's our first time through. We're hoping that next year it will be a smoother process," he said.