As University of Illinois became increasingly competitive and costly, some well-connected applicants had a double advantage: Clout not only got them on campus, it also got them free tuition.
University e-mails and a state report show that some students were placed on secret clout lists after state lawmakers advocated for them and then admitted only after the university learned that they were to get a coveted General Assembly scholarship.In one 2003 case, university officials asked former admissions counselor Abel Montoya if a legislative scholarship could reverse the denial of a student sponsored by Rep. Ronald Wait (R-Belvidere).
Each legislator receives two four-year scholarships every year, with most dividing them into eight one-year awards. The scholarships are allotted without regard to financial need or academic merit. The only requirement is that a recipient live within a legislator's political district.
The scholarships were already controversial because they often are given to the relatives of political donors, campaign workers and state or city employees.
The idea that they also were used as a wedge to try and get subpar students into the U.ofI. adds one more reason for skepticism, observers said.
"One of the supposed controls had been they could only waive tuition for students who had already been accepted," said president Laurence Msall of the Civic Federation in Chicago. "So, if (a legislative scholarship) enhanced someone's application ... that's even more of a concern."
The practice of double-dipping became apparent to the state Admissions Review Commission, impaneled by Gov. Pat Quinn to investigate abuses at the Urbana-Champaign campus. Since 2005, about 800 undergraduate applicants were tagged as Category I and got preferential treatment in admissions. The university ended the practice after the commission's report this summer.
"Certain applicants were only admitted because they were awarded GA scholarships," the commission wrote in its final report.
Illinois' 11 public universities must absorb the cost, because the legislature does not fund them. The U. of I. alone spent $8.7 million on the tuition waivers during the 2007-08 school year, according to the Illinois Board of Higher Education. The number of legislative scholarships awarded to U. of I. students has grown each of the past five years for which data is available.
Former U. of I. law school Dean Heidi Hurd testified to the panel that three clouted applicants were admitted to the law school in 2003 and received legislative scholarships.
"It's a double loss," she said.
A review of university and other public documents shows several examples of pressure being applied. In some cases, legislators or lobbyists were unsuccessful in gaining admission for the students. In others, it's not clear whether the student was admitted.
In one case, a relative of a DuPage County official from Glen Ellyn was wait-listed, but designated as a Category I applicant because a powerful person had inquired about the student.
The student ultimately got both a scholarship and an acceptance letter, though it's unclear from public documents whether the scholarship or Category I influenced the admission decision.
Sen. Dan Cronin awarded the scholarship, but the Elmhurst Republican's staff said he never asked for preferential treatment in admissions.
The DuPage County official said the family member had a strong academic record and wouldn't have needed his intervention, though he doesn't remember the details of the application process.
The relative of a Belvidere businessman landed on the university's wait list -- and Category I -- before the candidate was admitted in 2006. She, too, received a legislative scholarship. Here again, it is unclear whether either swayed the admissions decision for the honors student.
The businessman, a U. of I. alumnus, said he never had a hint of any preferential treatment. "I'm flabbergasted because we tried to keep everything aboveboard," he said. Wait, who grew up with the family in the small, northern Illinois farming town where "everybody knows everybody," gave the applicant's tuition waiver. He said he did not try to sway the student's admission.
"I don't recall that if you gave a scholarship that meant a person was going to get in," Wait said. "We were always told they had to get in on their own accord."
University records point to a different conclusion. Rep. Kevin Joyce (D-Chicago) pushed for the admission of a Mother McAuley High School senior in 2003, saying he intended to give her a legislative scholarship. A university official said Joyce wanted the applicant admitted first to avoid making it "seem that because of the scholarship she is being admitted."
Montoya wrote back: "She probably will not be admitted without the GA scholarship."
The applicant ultimately was admitted. U. of I. maintains the decision was "based entirely on merit," according to the admissions panel report.
The Tribune is not naming the applicants because it is unclear if they or their families were aware any efforts to sway admissions were made on their behalf.