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Lt. governor pushes college affordability during NIU visit

DeKALB – Shondell Coleman was determined to become the first person in his family to go to college.

But as a first-generation minority student from Chicago with a low ACT score, his path was not going to be easy. He focused on academics his first year of college after being admitted to Northern Illinois University through a special program that relaxes admission requirements, but he racked up student debt.

Now, two jobs later, and a junior who has earned more than 10 scholarships, Coleman is down to $9,000 in student loan debt and hopes to pay it off before graduation. While proud of his accomplishments, Coleman knows financial challenges keep some other students from pursuing a college degree.

“I think it is important for the cost of college to be talked about and really looked at,” Coleman said. “Financial aid and scholarships can’t cover it.”

College affordability was the topic Friday during Lt. Governor Sheila Simon’s visit to NIU on Friday where she told students about her efforts to lower costs in the future.

According to a College Board trends report published last month, costs at public and private universities nationwide increased more than 4 percent this school year, while the cost of community college increased more than 5 percent since last school year. Federal aid also declined for the first time in three years. 

Simon outlined some of the reforms she is pursuing such as the College Choice Report program, which would require colleges to provide information such as net costs, average debt and completion rates in a user-friendly format.

She compared it to a can of soda with nutritional labels, saying it will give consumers the needed information to find what is best for them.

“Students are very savvy consumers of information,” Simon said. “We want to help them make cross-institutional comparisons.”

Simon also is working to reform Monetary Award Program grants from a first-come, first-serve process to one based on a combination of merit and need.

Daihee Cho, a junior international student, said Simon’s ideas are a step in the right direction but there still is more that needs to be done, especially on the international student front. He said many international students cannot qualify for financial assistance or state grants, which makes college difficult to afford.

“My family had to pay ... I was fortunate,” Cho said of his expenses. “We need to lower the financial hurdle so we can attract a lot more international students who are dedicated.”

Rep. Robert Pritchard, R-Hinckley, said there are hurdles in Illinois that make it difficult to pass the reforms Simon hopes to accomplish. Pritchard, who is working with Simon’s education initiatives, said the College Choice Report plan has been stalled in the Illinois House because some interests fear more transparency would lead to more competition for enrollment.

“You’re going to have winners and losers ... not everyone sees the value of transparency,” he said. “Change is scary for a lot of people.”

Stories such as Coleman’s are what Simon hopes will convince people that students need and deserve assistance.

“It really reinforces these students know the value of higher education,” Simon said of the dedication she sees. “These students aren’t just sitting on the couch ... they barely have time to sleep.”

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