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New law to give more flexibility to colleges in Aim High grant program

Universities get more flexibility in financial aid spending to increase in-state enrollment

DeKALB – A bill signed into law by Gov. JB Pritzker on Thursday will give Illinois universities more flexibility as they try to stem the tide of state high-school grads attending college out of state.

The bill, HB 2505, strengthens the Aim High grant program, which aids state institutions such as Northern Illinois University in attracting local high school students to retain enrollment in Illinois.

Illinois has become one of the leading exporters of college-bound high school students to other states, with a March report by the Illinois Board of Higher Education finding that nearly half of Illinois high school grads leave to attend out-of-state colleges and universities.

Many out-of-state schools aggressively recruit Illinois high-schoolers, and offer scholarships and financial aid incentives that can make them more affordable than in-state tuition at Illinois universities.

Part of the problem is also that in-state schools are also relying more and more on student tuition to pay their bills. The higher ed board report also found that state funding for public universities covers only 35% of costs in the 2018 fiscal year, down from 72% in the 2002 fiscal year. Tuition now covers 65% of schools' costs, the report found.

"After many years of a declining percentage of Illinois students choosing to stay in state, Aim High is helping us change that dynamic, making it more affordable for students and their families to choose to stay here," Pritzker said as he signed the bill Thursday at Southwest High School in Springfield, according to a news release from the governor's office.

NIU's Aim High program received $5 million in 2018, representing a 30% increase in scholarships for students currently attending a high school in Illinois, to attend the university.

According to the guidelines for applicants of NIU's Aim High Scholarship, up to $2,500 in scholarship aid can be given to qualifying students curerntly enrolled in an Illinois high school. Pending grade-point-average, class load, and other merit-based requirements, students have the ability to renew their funding until graduation.

Sol Jensen, vice president for enrollment, marketing and communications at NIU, has said the Aim High program is a first-step effort in implementing the strategic enrollment plan, which was announced in January and seeks to increase enrollment to 18,000 students by 2023.

With the new bill comes the ability for universities to carry over into the next fiscal year any unused financial aid funding for Aim High scholarships.

"This will provide schools with the flexibility they need to use funds as effectively and efficiently as possible," Pritzker said, according to the release. "Instead of losing out on leftover funds, our universities will be able to put them back into the program in future years or look to make improvements in how they run their program."

Pritzker's budget proposal for 2019-20 also calls for a 40% increase in funding for Aim High programs, adding $10 million to the program, which currently has a budget of $25 million, according to the Thursday media release from the Governor's office.

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