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URBANA — Illinois' flagship university has a new program to keep talented college students of modest means in-state: free tuition and fees.
Starting next fall, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign will promise eight semesters of free tuition and fees 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.
The offer — worth $15,000 a year or more, depending on a student's major — is an effort to remove uncertainty about financial aid and get students to apply who may have been scared off by the UI's "sticker price."
The program, called Illinois Commitment, is aimed at talented low- to moderate-income students and those who are the first generation to go to college, said Kevin Pitts, vice provost for undergraduate education.
Those students are often encouraged by teachers and counselors to consider college, but then they go to the UI's website and see the total cost of attendance is $31,000 to $36,000 — with fees, room and board, books and other expenses — which may nearly total their parents' annual income, Pitts said.
The website does say financial aid is available, and those students typically receive state and federal need-based grants as well as aid from the UI itself. But "the only way they find out how much is to go through the entire process and submit an application," he said, then wait weeks or months to find out.
"This is designed to simplify that concept: If my family income is less than $61,000, I know that tuition and fees are covered," Pitts said. "That concept, we think, is something that will really help students who may have been hesitant to even submit an application, let alone choose to attend."
In-state students have repeatedly said that cost and lack of scholarships were the primary reasons they declined the UI's admission offer, he said.
$4 million cost to UI
Chancellor Robert Jones said the program is part of an effort to keep college affordable for students across the state — "from Chicago down to the Kentucky border and from east to west."
"Free tuition is pretty straightforward," he said. "We certainly believe it has the great potential to attract students who have not taken a real serious look at the university."
It can also help stop the "brain drain" of top students to college in other states, Jones said.
"We want to move to a paradigm where people are no longer debating about whether they can afford to apply to Illinois, to one where they have resolved they can't afford not to apply and enroll at this university," he said.
The University of Michigan, Ohio State and other Big Ten schools have seen success with this approach, Pitts said.
About half of all Illinois households are eligible for the program, based on income data, Pitts said. UI officials don't know how many students might take advantage of the offer, but "we think it'll generate considerable interest," he said.
The UI doesn't expect the program to add a huge cost — roughly $4 million for each class of students, or about $16 million once it's fully phased in.
That's because students in that income range usually receive substantial aid already, through federal Pell grants, state Monetary Award Program grants and aid offered by the university itself. Total financial aid at the Urbana campus, including those programs, scholarships from individual colleges and other support, is about $138 million.
Currently, about 2,000 of the 7,500 first-year students would qualify for Illinois Commitment, and many of them already get enough aid to cover tuition and fees, Pitts said.
Students who earn other merit-based scholarships beyond MAP, Pell and Illinois Commitment will be able to apply those to other costs, such as room and board, Pitts said.
And students whose family incomes are just above the $61,000 cutoff will continue to be eligible for considerable aid, he said.
UI officials hope the new program will help reduce student debt. According to the most recent data, from 2016-17, about 45 percent of UI students take out loans, and the average debt upon graduation is $24,667. The UI's number is "well below the national average," Pitts said, but still higher than the $17,058 a decade ago.
The Illinois Commitment is separate from the state's new Aim High program, a $25 million matching grant for state universities to provide merit-based scholarships for Illinois students. The UI's Urbana campus expects to be eligible for about a quarter of that money, based on its enrollment.
"We have the largest single group of Illinois residents of any institution in the state," Pitts said.
The Illinois Student Assistance Commission is still working out the details of that program, which is also scheduled to take effect in fall 2019, Pitts said.
The UI also has a need-based grant program called "I Promise," for students with income at or below the poverty level who can't contribute anything to their college educations. That group likely will be a "subset" of the Illinois Commitment students, Pitts said.
State Sen. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet, part of a legislative higher education working group that developed the Aim High program, said Illinois Commitment is in keeping with the UI's land-grant mission to provide education to the masses.
"I hear all the time about the affordability issue. This seems to be a good-faith effort by the university to address the issue," Rose said.
"There's a lot of middle-income families above that $61,000 (threshold)," he added, which is why the working group is developing Aim High and other programs.
Erinn Murphy, college and career counselor at Carbondale Community High School, said the program could be a "game changer" for students, and she expects in-state applications to the UI to increase.