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OUR VIEW: UIC plan should help keep best and brightest in Illinois

THE ISSUE: Illinois-Chicago to offer free rides to state’s top students
OUR VIEW: Another good investment in higher ed that should pay dividends

A few months after a similar announcement at the state’s flagship university, there was more good news for local high schoolers with Tuesday’s announcement that the University of Illinois-Chicago will be offering tuition waivers for top students.

UIC will use its share of $25 million the state set aside for public university merit scholarships to offer tuition waivers to in-state students who meet academic benchmarks. That’ll cover the base tuition and fees of $13,664, but not room and board, which runs at least $10,000 per year. UIC calls the effort the Chancellor’s Fellows Program.

In late August, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign announced its own program aimed at keeping students close to home, covering tuition and basic fees for all Illinois undergraduates whose family income is below the statewide median income, current set at $61,000. UIUC officials estimated it would cost around $15,000 per student and could vary based on major.

UIC is employing a narrower approach by targeting top achieving students, and is in a position to do so because it hasn’t seen the same enrollment drop-off as many other public universities in Illinois. In fact, Provost Susan Poser said her school saw record enrollment last year, although she said there still are top students who chose to leave Illinois for colleges in other states.

That said, getting into UIUC is no small feat either, so the broad-based plan there makes plenty of sense on its own accord.

Hopefully other schools will be able to follow suit. A mid-September look at enrollment data from the state’s 10 public universities showed numbers are still down as the rebound from the budget impasse is slow. Eastern Illinois University had the best numbers, showing a 7.1 percent increase from fall 2017, up about 500 students. After Eastern, UIUC, UIC and Illinois State were in the best shape, although ISU is down 0.7 percent from the past year. But the other six state schools were further in the red, with Western Illinois University and Southern Illinois University-Carbondale bringing up the rear, down 9.9 percent and 11.9 percent respectively.

If schools can take steps to boost enrollment with in-state students, that’s definitely a two birds with one stone solution. And while each individual student’s decisions about their future should be their own, it stands to reason that giving our own young people quality education should help them become productive contributors to society and the economy, hopefully with many of them choosing to do so somewhere in Illinois, helping their colleges and universities see a return on this investment.

As we noted when looking at the UIUC program, covering tuition isn’t just about getting kids into school or keeping Illinoisans from seeking higher ed elsewhere, it’s also about helping them graduate without facing the type of debt they won’t be able to tackle with the type of careers their degrees feed into at that ripe young age.

Further, we also repeat our support of any measure that ensures broad access to quality two-year schools such as Illinois Valley Community College, as these institutions provide foundational educational opportunities — primarily to high school graduates who can keep living at home, but also to high school students pursuing dual credit courses as well as older students who might be returning to school to train for a new career, all much more affordably than heading off to a residential program.

Illinois absolutely should be in the business of higher education, and doing that the right way means taking a chance on something like UIC’s Chancellor’s Fellows Program. We’re certain the best and brightest local students can qualify, and we look forward to seeing how these bold moves ripple through both our readership area in terms of educational opportunity and the state at large as it relates to overall investment in public education.

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