Cloudy campus

The iconic Pullium Hall on the campus of Southern Illinois University is lit by dramatic evening light in April.

CARBONDALE— State legislators set aside $25 million this year to help public universities stem the Illinois “brain-drain,” and $1.9 million of that will go to SIU Carbondale, according to university officials.

The AIM HIGH Grant will help state universities try new financial aid strategies to reduce the number of Illinoisans choosing colleges in other states. Currently, more students leave Illinois for college than any other state, except New Jersey.

Eastern Illinois University has already announced how it will spend its near $1 million share: three new scholarship programs for local students. But SIUC’s plan is still in the works, according to Jennifer DeHaemers, associate chancellor for enrollment management.

Here’s a look at what EIU’s planning:

The banner program — EIU Promise — will cover 100 percent of tuition and fees for any admitted 2019 Freshman whose family income is $61,000 or less, and who achieves an 18 on the ACT and a 3.0 GPA.

EIU will also now match the cost of competitor public schools in surrounding states, including the financial aid they award to prospective students, and will offer bonuses to EIU students receiving merit scholarships.

“I’m confident that with these programs we’ll meet our enrollment goals for the next enrollment cycle,” said Josh Norman, a strategic enrollment planning specialist with EIU’s Department of Enrollment Management. “We’ll be centering some of our marketing around these programs.”

The University of Illinois led Illinois’ higher education pack when it committed, in late August, to eliminate tuition and fees for all 2019 Freshmen reporting below $61,000 in family income.

“They did a fantastic job marketing it. We took notice and thought how can we join them for our population [of students],” Norman said, which is somewhat demographically different from U of I’s.

The U of I program — Illinois Commitment — does not depend on the AIM HIGH funds, and will cost about $16 million per year once fully operational, according to Kevin Pitts, U of I Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education.

But regardless of how it’s achieved, there is tremendous marketing power to “simplifying the concept of financial aid,” Pitts said.

“The perception of cost for low- and middle-income students is enough to dissuade many of them from even applying,” Pitts said, when in reality, many of those students would receive aid greatly reducing the cost of attendance.

Now, rather than fretting about what percentage of a $16,000-$21,000 tuition bill would be covered by financial aid, a low-income student considering U of I will see a big fat zero.

The same will be true of qualifying students at EIU, where tuition and fees totaled $11,510.98 this year.

And even if students choose another school, simply securing more applications is highly valuable to a university, Pitts said.

“If a student says no to Illinois, we still learn quite a bit about them from surveys and the application process,” Pitts said, info that can be used in future recruitment efforts.

SIUC might choose to emulate EIU and U of I with its AIM HIGH money, offering blanket tuition relief for a certain group. Or it could create its own merit-based criteria to award the money. That’s the beauty of this funding, said Lynne Baker, Director of Communications for the Illinois Student Assistance Commission, which will disburse to the schools its allocation of the AIM HIGH funding.

Baker said the legislation requires that the funding go to students whose families make no more than six times the federal poverty level, which is currently about $150,000 for a family of four. 

“The nature of the AIM HIGH funds allows the schools to tailor their own programs,” Baker said, and form recruitment strategies around them.

One tricky aspect for SIUC administrators is that the AIM HIGH state money must be matched with university funds. That means the university must come up with an additional $1.9 million to disburse in financial aid from 2019-2023.

At EIU, administrators are counting on a positive response from donors excited about the program to help pay for it.

“We’re hoping to raise between $250,000 and $300,000 from the Eastern Illinois University Foundation,” EIU’s donor fundraising branch, Norman said. “I fully believe we’ll raise that money, because who wouldn’t want to support an institution that is doing right by our students, by the state and by secondary education in Illinois?”

And though the AIM HIGH money will spur recruitment competition, the hope is that Illinois higher education as a whole will rebound, Norman said.

“If we kept even half of these students in the state of Illinois, you wouldn’t see the enrollment drop you’ve seen in the last 10 years,” Norman said.

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