Tom Kacich | UI student body more economically diverse — but not enough

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Robert Jones said that when he came to the University of Illinois’ flagship campus nearly seven years ago, one of his chief goals was to make an education from the UI more affordable and accessible to the state’s lower- and middle-income students.

The Urbana campus chancellor has succeeded in that, for many, a degree from the UI is more affordable and more accessible. But he doesn’t believe enough Illinoisans are taking advantage of the opportunity.

The UI’s “Illinois Commitment” program, using a combination of federally funded Pell Grants, state-funded Monetary Award Program grants and campus resources, makes it possible for students from families with total income of less than $74,000 a year to have all tuition and fees covered for up to four years.

“Five years into this thing I’m still disappointed. Far too few people know about it,” he said. “And so what we need to do is to continue to be aggressive, talking about this every way we can and find ways to get the message out. Families are out there making decisions based on a lack of knowledge.”

A story in last week’s New York Times measured the economic diversity of nearly 300 colleges and universities in the United States — public, private, large, small, Ivy League, highly endowed, flagship schools — and ranked Illinois No. 63 overall, tied with Rutgers and Nebraska, also Big Ten schools. But among flagship schools, the UI tied for ninth, behind only the universities of New Mexico, Buffalo, Idaho and Montana, Louisiana State and the universities of Nevada-Reno, Texas and Alaska.

Most other Big Ten schools ranked anywhere from 133 (Northwestern) to 248 (Penn State).

The rankings — compiled by the research firm Ithaka S+R — were based on the share of students receiving Pell Grants, the federal program that provides outright grants to undergraduates from families generally in the bottom half of income distribution.

At the UI, 26 percent of freshmen in the 2020-21 academic year received Pell Grants, up 5 percentage points from 10 years earlier. (It dropped to 24 percent for the 2021-22 year, a data point not included in the New York Times story). The average for all schools in 2020-21 was 21 percent.

The UI is part of the American Talent Initiative, a consortium of 341 colleges and universities that aim to expand academic opportunities to talented low- and moderate-income students. The initiative hopes to attract, enroll and graduate an additional 50,000 lower-income students at its schools by 2025.

Jones is a member of the initiative’s steering committee.

“We talk about how critically important it is to educate all of one nation,” the Urbana chancellor said. “You can’t leave a whole segment of our society behind. That’s the take-home message for why efforts like this are so critically important.”

He and other higher-education officials in Illinois successfully lobbied the state to increase MAP grant funding this year by about $100 million, bringing the maximum grant to $8,400 per year. And since Jones’ time here, the campus has boosted its pot of financial aid from $92 million a year to $162 million.

But he believes there are families in Illinois who don’t even consider the UI because its stated tuition and fees add up to as much as $23,000 a year.

“What we learned two or three years ago was that there was a large percentage of students who were not even considering coming to this university, mostly from low socio-economic backgrounds, because they thought they could not afford it,” he said. “All they saw was the sticker price.”

That’s why the campus came up with “Illinois Commitment.” About a third of the students coming to the Urbana campus are beneficiaries of the program. That’s not enough, Jones said. The lack of African American students on the Urbana campus is particularly acute.

Only 5 percent of students on the Urbana campus this semester are Black. Add the number who consider themselves multi-racial, and it’s still just 8.2 percent (or 4,583) of the 56,403 students enrolled this semester. Illinois’ population is approximately 17 percent Black.

The numbers, Jones said, “are lower than the university aspires to be.”

“We have more work to do in making sure that our student population that is being admitted to the university more reflects the population of the state,” he said. “But I tell people that there’s only so much that we can do. We’re downstream. Somebody has to look upstream at the early-childhood education program, graduation rates, teacher training, and how do you make sure that students are college-ready.”

But lower-income high school students from Illinois who are talented enough and want to go to college should consider the UI, Jones said.

“I remind people all of the time that if you’re from a family with an income of up to $75,000, this university is the most affordable option in the state of Illinois. It really is,” he said. “We spend money on financial aid that other universities don’t have the wherewithal to do.”

In the coming weeks, he’ll be making that point on a statewide tour when top officials from the three-campus UI System meet with government officials, business leaders, alumni, K-12 school administrators and others.

“I say it everywhere I go,” he said. “I feel strongly that universities need to do a better job of attracting and admitting and educating underrepresented students and students from lower socio-economic backgrounds. That is still the core of what the land-grant mission was about since its inception.”

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