Legislators make fix to fund use limits in scholarship bill

Legislators make fix to fund use limits in scholarship bill

SPRINGFIELD — Illinois lawmakers have modified a new college scholarship program to give public universities more flexibility in how they spend the state's portion of the funding.

The Aim High program is providing $25 million in matching funds for merit-based scholarships at state public universities next fall to keep top students in Illinois and reduce student loan debt.

The money is allocated based on enrollment, with about $5 million headed to the University of Illinois' Urbana campus, the state's largest.

Originally, the legislation required schools to spend the entire state allocation each year or return it to the Illinois Student Assistance Commission, which administers financial aid programs.

But the scholarships are designed to be renewable for four years, and schools wanted to hold back part of the money to continue the awards for a student's entire undergraduate career. That way, they could use the following year's state allocation to give scholarships to a new round of freshmen.

"This funding flexibility will allow us to make four-year renewable awards for 2019-20 and continue to make new four-year renewable awards in subsequent years of the program," said Jennifer Creasey, UI senior director of state relations.

During a veto session Tuesday, the House of Representatives agreed to a fix that the Senate had approved in December, allowing schools to carry over some of the money. It can't be used for anything besides the Aim High scholarships.

The bill was originally drafted by the Higher Education Working Group, a bipartisan group of 12 Illinois legislators that includes Sen. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet, and Sen. Pat McGuire, D-Crest Hill, who chairs the Senate Higher Education Committee.

Rose said he and McGuire had made clear in presenting the amendment that the universities essentially would be holding the money "in trust" for the students as they advanced through school, and that they "couldn't just go spend the money on something other than the payment of tuition," which had been a concern of some House members.

"It's great timing. We needed it to happen now and not wait until May because we're awarding these scholarships now" for 2019-20, Creasey said.

At the UI, the $5,000 annual scholarships will be awarded to the top 5 percent of qualifying in-state freshmen who meet other Aim High requirements — roughly 300 students, officials said. Some may also be awarded to qualifying transfer students.

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.

Students had to submit a Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, by Jan. 5 to be considered.

-