Proposal for uniform admissions standards ignites controversy
By PETER HANCOCK
Capitol News Illinois
SPRINGFIELD – A proposal to automatically admit students to any public college or university in Illinois if they meet certain standards is running into opposition, primarily from the University of Illinois system.
Rep. André Thapedi (D-Chicago), who was unsuccessful in pushing through similar legislation in 2018, is sponsoring a revised proposal this year to guarantee that any student who graduates from an accredited high school in Illinois and who meets certain academic standards would be guaranteed admission to any of the state’s public higher education institutions.
Thapedi told a House committee Thursday that the primary aim of the bill is “to keep our best and our brightest students here in Illinois,” many of whom, he said, leave Illinois to attend college elsewhere.
But he also said it’s intended as a form of affirmative action for minority students and other under-represented groups on Illinois college campuses. He specifically pointed to U of I’s Urbana-Champaign campus as a source of concern because of its small proportion of minority student enrollment — 5.2 percent African-American and 9.3 percent Hispanic.
“That’s pretty much the lowest in the entire state, so perhaps that’s the reason why there’s some hesitancy on their part to support this proposal,” Thapedi said.
U of I officials said while they support Thapedi’s goal of keeping more Illinois students in the state, and of increasing minority enrollment in higher education, the lawmaker’s proposal could lead to the automatic admission of students who are not prepared to succeed at institutions like U of I.
“As a tier-one research institution, we are not configured at Urbana-Champaign to provide a great deal of remedial education for students who are not ready for an advanced college curriculum,” said Kevin Pitts, vice provost for Undergraduate Education at U of I. “Fortunately, we have a community college and a regional university system in this state that can help in that respect, and as a consequence we take well over 1,000 transfer students a year.”
Thapedi responded that under his plan schools wouldn’t be forced to admit unqualified students. He said the bill provides a two-part test for automatic admission: the students must have graduated in the top 10 percent of their class and they must have ACT or SAT scores that meet the benchmark qualifications for admission to the school where they are applying.
“So the question that the kids are going to be ill-equipped to be successful, potentially, it just doesn’t really catch much muster, in my view,” Thapedi said.
The bill also provides that, for schools that do not rank their students, officials from that school may instead send a letter or other form of certification explaining where the student would have ranked, if the school did use rankings, a provision that Thapedi said addresses concerns raised in last year’s bill.
And it provides that the U of I Urbana-Champaign campus would not be required to give automatic admissions to more than 75 percent of an incoming freshman class.
But some members of the committee, mainly Republicans, expressed skepticism at that. Rep. Terri Bryant (R-Murphysboro), for example, noted high school students can boost their grade point averages by taking only easy classes. And some, she said, are good test-takers who can score high on standardized tests, even though they may not really understand the questions or the material.
“I would just say that there could be students who would need some remedial education prior to going to school,” Bryant said.
Rep. Norine Hammond (R-Macomb) said she was concerned that requiring schools to admit freshmen from the top 10 percent of their high school class could squeeze out otherwise qualified students from the lower 90 percent.
Meanwhile, Rep. Jeff Keicher (R-Sycamore) suggested that it might be better to start with a pilot program, starting with what he called the “directional” schools — Northern, Southern, Eastern and Western Illinois Universities.
“I am fully open to doing that,” Thapedi said. “But you should know that as long as the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana is in opposition, it’s a tough call. They drive it. What they say kind of goes.”
The committee took no action on the bill Thursday. Thapedi said he plans to continue working with the universities, lawmakers and other stakeholders in higher education to come up with a final bill that would address their concerns.