State Journal: Scholarship follies

March 08, 1995 1 min read

A federal grand jury is looking into a longstanding practice of Illinois lawmakers: naming students who can attend state colleges for free.

Since 1905, lawmakers have had the privilege of issuing tuition waivers, which were worth $4.2 million last year. Each lawmaker is allowed to issue one four-year waiver at the University of Illinois and one at any of the state’s other 11 public colleges. Students who win the awards must live within the legislator’s district.

Critics have complained that lawmakers often grant the waivers to the children of campaign contributors and political cronies.

Officials in the state education department and at the University of Illinois recently received subpoenas asking for student records related to the scholarship program.

Meanwhile, a state senator who filed a bill that would terminate the program fears that the scrutiny will make his proposal an even tougher sell. The bill was approved by a committee but has yet to reach the Senate floor, where lawmakers may now be more hesitant to appear to find their own program guilty.

Scholarships are not such a protected species in South Dakota, where two high school students recently skipped classes to spend a day lobbying for the Mickelson Scholars Program.

The program, which awards full four-year scholarships to the University of South Dakota to the state’s top students, has provided $500,000 in aid to 96 students over the last two years.

Gov. Bill Janklow recommended an end to the program, arguing that it is more important that the state devote scarce funds to economic-development efforts. The state board of regents agreed to his request last month.

The action does not require legislative approval, but Mike Swartz and Dusty Johnson, high school seniors in Pierre, played hooky in an effort to persuade lawmakers to intervene.

The Governor’s action will cost them dearly, Mr. Swartz and Mr. Johnson explained, because both had planned on receiving the scholarships and attending school in South Dakota. Neither student has applied to out-of-state schools or for other aid.

“It’s a disgrace to the state of South Dakota that we’re left hanging,” Mr. Johnson said.

Governor Janklow remained unconvinced, saying that the state’s smartest students should be able to find an answer to this problem.

--Lonnie Harp

A version of this article appeared in the March 08, 1995 edition of Education Week as State Journal: Scholarship follies