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When a smart kid wins a scholarship, why does Illinois cheap out?

When a student wins an academic scholarship, Illinois public universities, such as the University of Illinois (above), unfairly cut the student's other financial aid, writes Robin Redmond of the George M. Pullman Educational Foundation. | AP file photo

The highest honor in the entertainment field is to be a EGOT winner — someone who has won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony. Only 12 people, including Audrey Hepburn and Whoopi Goldberg, have ever received all four awards.

It would be ridiculous to think we should take away someone’s Oscar just because they are also talented enough to win a Tony.

OPINION

Why then do colleges and universities reduce financial aid awards to academically gifted students who have worked hard to earn scholarships from other sources?

This is what’s happening right now in Illinois and across the country; the higher education sector calls it “displacement.” It has become so harmful to high achieving students that Maryland just enacted a law that prohibits public universities from reducing a student’s financial aid just because that student also received an outside scholarship.

As the executive director of one of the oldest college scholarship providers to Chicago-area students, I deal with this disturbing situation every day. The George M. Pullman Educational Foundation awards outstanding high school seniors with up to $10,000 per year in scholarship support, renewable for four years. Scholarship recipients must demonstrate strong financial need and have a cumulative unweighted grade point average of 3.0 or higher. Our primary goal is to help young people graduate college without the burden of student loan debt. Displacement undermines that objective.

There are many disheartening stories of financial aid displacement. After one of our scholars received the good news that she had been awarded a Pullman Foundation Scholarship, the University of Illinois at Chicago responded with bad news. Her UIC Access to Excellence Grant, worth $2,500, had been taken away. Illinois’ largest financial aid program for college students, the Monetary Award Program (MAP), eliminated an additional $376 when she informed them of her scholarship.

Thanks to this student’s strong academic record, her cost to attend UIC had been almost fully funded, but after these actions her only recourse was to take out student loans to pay her remaining tuition bill.

To cite another example, we were proud to award a student with a Pullman Foundation Scholarship to study electrical engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, but we were shocked when upon receipt of his scholarship, his university tuition grant was reduced by $1,219.

Another scholar also saw $2,500 from her UIC Access to Excellence Grant rescinded. Later, the MAP grant and the Engineering Board Scholarship she had earned both were limited to one semester of support.

Nearly 44 million Americas are shouldering approximately $1.4 trillion in student loan debt, according to the Federal Reserve. The Pullman Foundation Scholarship may be applied towards the student’s cost of attendance, including, but not limited to, tuition, fees, room and board, books, transportation and miscellaneous personal expenses. It is intended to supplement a scholar’s existing financial aid and is offered with the condition that any adjustments offset student loans first.

Here in Illinois, we clearly need the kind of leadership lawmakers in Maryland have shown by prohibiting this claw-back activity. The University System of Maryland, which is made up of that state’s 12 public institutions of higher education, supported the legislation and this helped with its passage. We should look to this kind of partnership in our state.

Some displacement defenders say they need to recapture financial aid resources to disburse it to other students with financial need. But the logic here is off and is exactly the opposite of how the real world we are preparing these young people for works.

Take, for instance, how the MacArthur Foundation in Chicago operates. When it names its fellows, also known by some as “MacArthur Geniuses,” it clearly states it’s making a bet on the future of the awardees. It would be bizarre for the fellow’s employer to turn around and say, “Well, since you won $625,000 from MacArthur, we are reducing your salary going forward because Joe, who’s not as talented nor as productive as you, also needs to get paid and we have a tight budget.”

Now is the time to change the narrative for higher education in Illinois. Let’s start by eliminating displacement and supporting quality college students in receiving all the financial support they’ve earned through their academic accomplishments.

Robin Redmond is executive director of the Chicago-based George M. Pullman Educational Foundation.