Illinois behind in grant giving

By Andy Kwalwaser

A recent U.S. Department of Education report found that Illinois lags slightly behind other states in awarding a new grant to eligible students.

The report said Illinois students need more opportunities to pursue the Academic Competitiveness Grant, placing the onus on universities and high schools to increase awareness of the year-old award and its requirements.

Academic Competitiveness Grants are awarded to students who are in financial need and successfully complete a rigorous high school study program. Almost $7.5 million in grants were distributed to 9,353 students from Illinois last year, but the report said the state has significant room for improvement.

Just 4.2 percent of Illinois’ high school graduates received the grant, which is less than the 5.3 percent of students who were awarded Academic Competitiveness Grants nationwide. The Department of Education has set a nationwide goal to double the number of students receiving the grants by 2011.

Dan Mann, director of student financial aid, said many students from Illinois meet the grant’s financial conditions but do not meet academic requirements such as completing three years of high school social studies.

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“Here in Illinois there is a possibility for a lot more people to become eligible with more information to the high schools,” Mann said.

Last year 1,120 University students received the grants, the highest total for any university in the state. Mann said he does not think the University will be able to double its grant recipients in the near future.

States with the highest grant award rates, such as Nebraska and Minnesota, already offer high school students programs of study that qualify them for the grants. The Department of Education also distributed a pre-approved program of study to state boards of education and asked universities and high schools to make prospective students more aware of the requirements.

“This is a pretty new program, and a lot of states and schools have to get up to speed,” said Jane Glickman, public affairs specialist at the Department of Education.

In addition to the Academic Competitiveness Grant, a second award is under scrutiny as well.

The National Science and Mathematics Access to Retain Talent Grant, or the SMART Grant, is designed to encourage university students to study math, science and foreign languages. More than 60,000 students receive the grant nationwide, although it is restricted to juniors and seniors.

“I don’t know that a SMART Grant that will give you money your junior and senior years will encourage a lot of people to change their majors,” Mann said.

As with the Academic Competitiveness Grant, the Department of Education wants to the double the number of SMART Grant recipients within the next three years.

The University has 339 SMART Grant recipients, second most in the state to DeVry University, where almost 800 students receive the grants.