Potentially hundreds of failing Chicago State University students received state financial aid even though their grades were so low that they shouldn't have been allowed to take classes, according to testimony Wednesday at a state hearing.
The money could have gone to other low-income students in Illinois, Sen. Edward Maloney, D-Chicago, chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee, said at a meeting to review a troubling financial audit and other campus issues.
Wednesday's legislative hearing came after the Tribune reported last month that the South Side public university intentionally allowed failing students to remain in school to boost its enrollment numbers.
Maloney, who requested state financial aid information after the Tribune report, said that during the 2008-09 academic year, 449 Chicago State students received state grant money even though, under university policy, an untold number of them should have been dismissed for poor academic performance.
Of those students, 106 had a grade-point average of 0.0 and still received aid from the taxpayer-funded Monetary Award Program, known as MAP.
The state's largest grant program for low-income students is persistently underfunded, and 151,000 qualified students were shut out of aid last year. The maximum MAP award is $4,968 a year.
Chicago State President Wayne Watson, who took over in 2009, has said the practice of allowing failing students to stay on the rolls began in 2007 as an intentional effort to boost enrollment figures and then continued without the knowledge of current campus leaders. Watson has been touting increased retention and graduation rates as evidence that the institution is improving.
Chicago State has a policy that students with a grade-point average below 1.8 will be dismissed "for poor scholarship," but records obtained by the Tribune show students were allowed to continue registering for classes with GPAs as low as 0.0. Students who have a GPA less than 2.0 after 60 credit hours also are to be dismissed.
Watson acknowledged that enrollment and retention numbers were slightly inflated as a result and said he ended the practice as soon as he learned about it this spring.
The university dismissed 298 students for poor performance at the end of the spring semester, the same time the Tribune began asking for the GPA data.
"We found it, we discontinued it, we took action for those individuals who were not in compliance," Watson said. "We are in compliance as we sit here today."
During the 2008-09 year, 2,941 Chicago State students received MAP funding. About 15 percent — 449 students had GPAs below 2.0 at the end of the school year, according to figures Maloney received from the Illinois Student Assistance Commission, which administers the MAP program.
Because of the way the MAP data is collected, the 449 could include students who had higher GPAs when they applied for the funding; dropped out after the official drop deadline because of extenuating circumstances; or had a 0.0 because they took only non-credit classes.
"It's really disturbing. It's frustrating," Maloney said after the hearing. "But I think (Watson) is serious about (improving) this."
There are about 7,200 students at Chicago State, a taxpayer-funded school that serves mostly minority undergraduate and graduate students, producing more African-American graduates in the health care professions than any other university in the state, Watson said.
But the university for years has grappled with widespread financial mismanagement, scathing audits and a failure to graduate students. Watson said it is taking time to fix its many problems.
Maloney encouraged the university to do a better job recruiting high-performing students in the city and suburbs. He questioned the university's decision to admit students with ACT scores as low as 15.
Sen. Christine Johnson, R-Shabbona, said she was "mortified" when she read Chicago State's most recent audit, which uncovered 41 problems from July 2009 to June 2010, up from 13 the prior year. The audit found the university failed to send tuition bills to students during the spring 2010 semester, misspent federal grant money and had lax control over contracts.
University officials detailed several changes they've made. They now have three internal auditors, up from one, and are hiring a fourth. The university now electronically tracks purchases and contracts so there is more oversight and less possibility that procedures won't be followed.
"Chicago State University does have in place the administrative and internal controls necessary to ensure that we are fiscally strong and fiscally sound," said Glenn Meeks, the university's vice president of administration and finance.