Guest Commentary | College access and affordability: A better future for Illinois

Guest Commentary | College access and affordability: A better future for Illinois

By ERIC ZARNIKOW

Illinois has the talent and capacity to build a workforce pipeline for the skilled jobs of tomorrow. But to do that, we need to make sure that all Illinoisans — regardless of income or where they grow up — can choose to earn a postsecondary credential or degree.

That's why College Changes Everything Month, when the Illinois Student Assistance Commission and partners offer free college application and financial aid workshops statewide, is so important.

According to the Lumina foundation, "the vast majority of jobs created since the Great Recession require education beyond high school, and that trend shows no sign of abating." Illinois has adopted Lumina's 60 by 2025 goal to increase to 60 percent the proportion of Illinoisans with a postsecondary credential or degree by 2025.

Illinois has made a lot of progress, and in our bicentennial year, we should be proud that we are among the top 10 states with the highest postsecondary attainment rate; that our public universities serve more low-income students than any other state in the region while maintaining the second-highest graduation rate in the region; and that we have the highest completion rates in the region for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, a form that determines eligibility for federal, state and institutional financial aid.

We have one of the largest need-based grant programs in the country, the Monetary Award Program (MAP grant), and it works: Despite facing many more challenges to stay in school than higher-income students, MAP recipients graduate at the same rate as students in the same school.

And now there's the AIM HIGH program, which will provide means-tested merit aid to recruit Illinois students to our public universities.

All this is good news, but some students — especially low-income students, students of color and students who would be the first college-goers in their family — still aren't attempting or completing college at rates similar to their peers.

Illinois cannot build its skilled workforce or even get close to reaching its 60 by 2025 goal if we do not provide all students with access to the support and funding they need to make informed decisions about postsecondary education.

CCE Month activities are leveling the field. Throughout October, students and their parents can complete college applications and FAFSAs for the 2019-20 school year in workshops accessible from almost any Illinois city, with guidance from college and financial aid experts. To search for a free public event near you, visit studentportal/isac.org/events. Students and parents should also check with their high schools for events on campus. Find out more about CCE Month at collegechangeseverything.org/ccemonth.

During election season, it's important to remember that making college possible for all Illinoisans who choose to attend is not a partisan issue. Gov. Bruce Rauner proclaimed October CCE Month, and our bipartisan Higher Education Working Group in the General Assembly is collaborating to support college access and affordability. Let's move this great state into a brighter future, together, by assisting our students today.

Eric Zarnikow is the executive director of the Illinois Student Assistance Commission.