Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Legislature to give up college tuition waiver perk? Who’s kidding whom?

It seems that an increasing number of state legislators are going out of their way to distance themselves from a perk that has been a part of their job for more than a century – the ability to send someone to college tuition-free.

Some state legislators are so eager to avoid the headaches that have come to be associated with the measure that they go out of their way to avoid using it.

SENATE MINORITY LEADER Christine Radogno, R-Lemont, has even concocted a bill that would do away with it – and the appearance of bipartisanship could be provided because of the fact that Gov. Pat Quinn has said he would sign it into law if it were ever approved by the General Assembly and sent to him for consideration.

Yet nobody thinks this perk is in any serious danger of disappearing, because too many legislators (including the ones who are actually in control at the ‘Statehouse in Springpatch’) think they are doing a public good with their perk.

That, and they like the ability to ‘play God,’ so to speak, with the ability to help someone who might be in need to be able to attend a public university and work toward a college degree of some sort.

That is the reason why the Legislature’s black caucus members are particularly big fans of the perk – which has been in place since 1905.

SO PEOPLE LIKE state Sen. A.J. Wilhelmi, D-Joliet, and state Rep. Jason Barickman, R-Champaign, can rant all they want about misuse of the perk for political purposes, or how it deprives the state of money that can desperately be used right about now.

The only people who are going to be listening are their hometown reporter-type people who will latch onto the related quotes because it gives the impression that their local official is someone relevant on statewide issues – rather than just a local politico who is asked to vote on issues (usually in accordance with how their leader tells them to).

What motivates me to write this latest commentary on the issue is that I have noticed several reports in places like the Joliet Herald-News or WJBC-AM radio of Bloomington with these legislators shouting and screaming for the need to do away with the tuition waiver perk.

But I don’t sense any movement from the people who might be able to push the measure through. Which means this will be nothing but a lot of ‘hot air.’ Cheap rhetoric fills space, and I have written my share of stories throughout the years that were based on nothing but some political person’s ‘hot air’ talk.

BUT THAT DOESN’T mean we should get our hopes up that any action will occur. We have a better chance of a Chicago Cubs World Series appearance this year than we do of seeing the tuition waiver perk disappearing.

Note that I keep using the phrase “tuition waiver” to describe this action – rather than the politician-preferred phrase of “legislative scholarship.”

The people who back this seem to like the image being created that what they’re doing is controlling a pool of money that is distributed to the public universities across Illinois to pay for the tuition of those students who receive the waivers.

The problem is that there never was, never has been and never will be, any real money associated with this perk. It is a tuition waiver. The people who get chosen by individual legislators to receive the perk get nothing more than an official letter on the legislator’s state stationery.

THE LETTER IS addressed to the bursar of whichever state college the recipient attends, and it informs them that the student in question is NOT to be charged any tuition for the courses they take during that academic year.

Since the colleges in question already realize that they are going to have a certain number of people not paying tuition for political purposes, they react in the obvious manner. Every year when tuition rates are set for the following year, they are boosted ever so slightly higher than otherwise necessary to cover the costs of the freebies they’re forced to give out.

In short, the rest of the student bodies are paying just a little bit higher in tuition rates to cover the costs of the people who get to pay no tuition for the year because it suited the political needs of a state legislator.

To me, the part of this perk that is troublesome is not that it exists. But it is that each legislator is allowed to set his (or her) own terms for who gets it – and for what qualifications.

SO WHILE SOME legislators go out of their ways to create committees that judge students on their academic merits or financial need, others literally are giving them to the children of their political allies.

The way the law is now written, there’s nothing wrong with that. Except that there really is.

As for the people who just want to do a knee-jerk elimination of the perk, I’m not sure what to think. Because as much as I’m sure they want to think they’re being heroic and noble, a part of me believes they, too, are looking for an easy way out by wanting to do nothing at all.


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