Illinois tuition waivers scandal prompts challenge in court, change in state law

ILLINOIS — Universities, courts and the state legislature are locked in an access struggle involving political patronage and school scholarships.

A 92-year-old perk that gives state representatives state university tuition waivers to distribute at their will has come under fire after a newspaper revealed many were given to the children of politically connected parents.

Early in 1996, a southern Illinois newspaper, the Champaign News-Gazette, requested under the state freedom of information act the names and addresses of each of the scholarship recipients at each state school over the past six years. In the past, universities have not unilaterally released such information.

In February 1996 only two schools, Eastern Illinois University in Charleston and Western Illinois University in Macomb, responded. It was the first time in the scholarship program’s history that the secrecy surrounding recipients’ names had been disturbed.

The News-Gazette then joined forces with the larger Chicago Tribune to bring a suit against the other schools that did not comply. Don Craven, an attorney for the Illinois Press Association said they filed suit in Chicago because appellate court decisions in that district were thought to be more hospitable to the case.

Last summer the newspapers’ case against the other state universities, Chicago Tribune v. University of Illinois Chicago, prevailed in court. The case was heard by the state appellate court in September, but a decision has not yet been announced.

The News-Gazette investigated the names given them by the two schools. The paper compared the list of winners against a computer database containing the names of top county and state officials, state employees and campaign contributors. They reported that at least 10 per cent of students awarded tuition waivers were the relatives of political supporters.

The paper also reported that many of the winners came from outside the legislator’s district, a violation of state law.

Eastern and Western Illinois universities’ release of information angered state legislators, many of whom said they felt tainted by the unseemly actions of a few. The state board of education agreed that the names of award winners were private and the two universities were wrong to release the information.

Both schools have since apologized for their actions. Western, however, said it was advised by attorneys to release the names.

In response to public outrage the state legislature passed a law that would make students consent to having their names released before accepting the waivers. Gov. Jim Edgar has vetoed the bill. He is pushing for a stricter version that would also disclose the amount of a student’s waiver, the recipient’s university, degree and the winner’s home address.

Some lawmakers upset with the scandal have simply called for the program to be abolished. Craven, however, believes a final agreement will be reached.

Despite the negative press, many lawmakers say they give the waivers to deserving students. Some representatives create independent advisory councils to appropriately dispense the waivers based on merit and need. Each lawmaker is allowed to distribute two four-year scholarships each year. Many times legislator’s split the award into eight one-year grants.

Legislators are also allowed to distribute previously unused awards. Unused scholarships stay attached to the representative’s office so that if a legislator leaves, the leftover portions can be given by his or her successor. Scholarships more than 20 years old, which have appreciated hundreds of times in value as the cost of education has risen, have been given out in recent years. This has added to the controversy.

The free rides cost the state’s universities nearly $4.4 million in 1994-95.

reports, Winter 1996-97