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5,000 Students Use Aid Meant to Keep Illinois College Students In State

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Aim High

Governors State University credits a new state scholarship program, Aim High, with helping to stop enrollment declines at the south suburban school. At the school, 42% of students offered a scholarship enrolled this fall.

Marc Monaghan

Nearly 5,000 students enrolled at an Illinois public university this fall using a new academic scholarship meant to keep more students in state for college, though far more were offered the grants, according to data provided by public universities to WBEZ.

The Aim High program was created by state lawmakers to address the growing number of students leaving Illinois for college. Some 48% of high school graduates who enrolled at a four-year university left the state for college in 2017. The only state where more students leave for college is New Jersey. Many Illinois universities have been struggling with declining enrollment.

Though 5,000 students used the new scholarship, the majority of students who were offered scholarships by individual schools in the first year of the program did not enroll at that school. The scholarships range from a few thousand dollars to full tuition, depending on the college.

At nine of the state’s twelve public universities, fewer than half of students offered a scholarship accepted it.

At the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, 700 students were offered Aim High scholarships, while only 285 enrolled. At the University of Illinois at Chicago, 1,021 students were offered a scholarship, while just 248 enrolled. It’s unclear how many students were offered Aim High scholarships at multiple universities.

At some smaller Chicago area schools, the rate of students accepting scholarships was higher. Some 70% of the 112 students offered an Aim High scholarship at Chicago State University enrolled. At Northeastern Illinois University, 192 students enrolled out of 207 offered an Aim High scholarship, 92%.

At Governors State, 42% of students offered a scholarship enrolled this fall.

University# Scholarships offered# Enrolled Percentage who enrolled
Northern Illinois2,4741,05642.7
Governors State28512142.5
U of I at Chicago1,02124824.3
U of I at Urbana-Champaign70028540.7
U o f I at Springfield49123347.5
Northeastern Illinois20719292.8
Chicago State1127869.6
Western Illinois59021035.6
Illinois State3,1981,09734.3
Eastern Illinois140333123.6
Southern Illinois - Edwardsville1,03741640.1
Southern Illinois - Carbondale1,15845539.3

Officials at those schools say the scholarship helped curb declining enrollments.

AIM HIGH has allowed Governors State to attract outstanding students who might otherwise have gone out of state — or even worse, nowhere,” said President Elaine Maimon in a statement last month. “In past years, GSU’s biggest competitor was “nowhere,” indicating a loss of human capital that Illinois can ill afford. AIM HIGH is turning that around.”

Under Aim High, the state allocated $25 million to distribute to schools. Universities are required to match those funds for the scholarships and the schools set the academic criteria.

Some universities, like the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Illinois at Chicago, used the scholarship to attract top students with high SAT scores and grade point averages. UIC allowed any valedictorian in Illinois to apply regardless of their grades.

Others, including Governors State, Northeastern Illinois and Chicago State, kept academic requirements lower. They focused on attracting students who might be ready for college, but struggled to pay for it.

Mike Dizon, chief of staff at NEIU, said the school “aggressively promoted” Aim High to prospective students. The only academic qualification was that students have a 3.0 GPA.

“Our Golden Opportunity Scholarship, which combined AIM HIGH and other scholarship sources, really resonated with freshmen, and many of them took advantage of it,” Dizon said in a statement. “As a result, we saw a slight uptick in new freshman enrollment.”

UIC says the roll out of Aim High came after last year’s application cycle had already begun. They set a November 1 cut-off date for students to qualify for their Aim High program, which UIC calls the Chancellor’s Fellows. Students with a 3.9 GPA and at least a 1360 SAT can receive full tuition, around $16,000.

“It was late to the folks we’d wanna reach in high schools about what this actually was,” said Kevin Browne, vice provost for academic and enrollment services.

Browne said the fact they received so many qualified applications in a short amount of time was promising. They decided to create a second scholarship program, called the Provost Fellows, that used the matching funds to offer $5,000 scholarships to students. Still, only 15%of students offered the Provost Fellows scholarship last year enrolled at UIC this fall.

Browne says Aim High is key to attracting higher performing students who are getting great financial aid packages from other state schools around the country.

“All we want to do is be competitive,” he said. If a student has their heart set on UC San Diego or Buffalo, that’s great. But don’t go because they gave you a better financial offer.”

Browne said he’s confident the number of students at UIC who utilize Aim High money will grow as the program continues and they have more time to recruit.

Kate McGee covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @McGeeReports.

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