For years, high school graduates have fled Illinois to attend out-of-state colleges in such massive numbers, only New Jersey loses more. So State Rep. André Thapedi (D-Chicago) came up with an idea to try to keep top students here. He filed a bill that would give high school students who graduate in the top 10 percent of their class — and achieve certain standardized test scores — guaranteed admission at Illinois public universities.
From the controversy it kicked up, you’d think his proposal included free tuition, which it does not. In 2017, the bill died after almost 90 minutes of debate in the House of Representatives. This year, Thapedi has revised and re-filed it.
He has personal reasons for pushing this bill.
“I guess it would be being an African American man, a Black man, from Chicago, that has had a life that’s far different than a lot of the young kids that I represent,” he says.
By his own account, Thapedi’s been really lucky. Both of his parents have prestigious careers, and they sent him to Chicago’s St. Ignatius College Prep (the same private school Speaker of the House Michael Madigan attended). From there, Thapedi went to Morehouse College, and finally John Marshall Law School. During his last year at law school, he did some substitute teaching.
“And on more than one occasion, especially when I was in minority communities with deplorable conditions, deplorable classrooms, deplorable facilities and supplies, I would see that occasional young man or young lady that had a twinkle in their eye. And I referred to them as diamonds in the rough,” he says. “And I want to continue that process of recognizing that some individuals just need a chance.”
He believes anyone who truly applies themselves in high school deserves the opportunity to attend a public university.
“I don’t care if you went to Harper High School in Englewood, or Northside Prep or Walter Payton, I don’t care,” Thapedi says. “If you’ve dedicated yourself to your craft where you’re graduating in the top 10 percent of your class, and you have performed well on the ACT and/or SAT, you deserve a shot. And I want to give you a shot. And that’s what this bill is all about.”
This idea isn’t exactly radical. Similar law are already used in other states, most notably Texas, which established a top 10 percent policy in 1997. It has since been revised to just the top 6 percent, but it has survived a legal challenge all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court — a point Thapedi always hammers home whenever he talks about his bill.
But his colleagues have other creative questions, such as the ones they came up with when Thapedi’s bill was debated on the House floor in 2017.
Rep. Steve Andersson (R-Geneva), asked how it would affect homeschoolers. “I’m pretty sure most of the time there’s only one or two kids in it, so I’m pretty sure they’re in the top 10 percent of their class. Does that give them an automatic pass?”
Rep. Jeanne Ives (R-Wheaton), wanted to know whether undocumented students would qualify. “If you are a non-citizen, if you’re here illegally and you graduate from high school … in the top 10 percent, will you also get automatic enrollment into one of our public universities? There’s nothing in here that establishes citizenship as part of the requirement to be in the top 10 percent, is there?”
Rep. Jaime Andrade (D-Chicago) asked, “Does this take into consideration early admission?”
Rep. Carol Ammons (D-Champaign) suggested it would cause Illinois to lose more students. “Would this policy make it easier for universities in other states to recruit high-achieving Illinois residents in the 11-30 percent range of student completion, and would it in some way exacerbate out-migration of our students under this policy?”
Rep. Peter Breen (R-Lombard) suggested it could impact students who hadn’t graduated from high school. “What about folks with a GED? Folks for whom high school ... just didn’t work out for them? What are they supposed to do?”
Rep. Margo McDermed (R-Mokena) envisioned the bill causing admissions officers to “trade” students. “Is there going to be some kind of clearinghouse to make sure none of these 10 percenters are left behind? It seems to me that the way this bill is going to have to work is all of the state universities are going to have to get together in a room, the way the [Ivy League schools] used to, and trade their students, because now they’re going to have an obligation to take the top 10 percent of the students. So it seems to me that the admissions officers are going to have to have like a trading floor somewhere. Am I missing something?”
Thapedi answered all these questions and more. But nothing he said carried much weight compared to the statement made by Rep. Norine Hammond (R-Macomb), who began her speech: “Well I can tell you that the University of Illinois is adamantly opposed to this bill….”
That sentiment has not changed. Thapedi’s new, revised bill currently has 27 opponents — most affiliated with the U of I. Last week, when he presented it for a subject matter hearing in the House higher education appropriations committee, Kevin Pitts, vice-provost for undergraduate education at the U of I flagship campus, came to testify against it.
“The concern with this specific bill is that, yes there may be students who are high-achieving students who are outside the 10 percent that might be excluded based on purely numbers, the number of seats that we have at the University of Illinois,” he told lawmakers.
But his main concern was that such a policy would bring in students “who are not prepared to succeed,” and warned that his campus isn’t equipped to welcome them. “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,” he said.
These students who have achieved the top grades in their schools and qualified on ACT or SAT tests should instead consider starting at regional or community colleges, Pitts said, and could later transfer to UIUC, which accepts “well over a thousand” transfer students per year.
At the moment, however, the school’s website for transfer applicants appears to be under construction, and not scheduled to be functional until late spring.
Thapedi is well-aware that the state’s land-grant university is the main impediment to his bill, and he wonders whether it has anything to do with their different definitions of diversity.
UIUC lags significantly behind other Great Lakes flagships when it comes to black and Hispanic representation. But it has more international students than all but five other schools in the nation.
Thapedi promotes his bill as an affirmative action plan -- not only for black and Hispanic students, but also for students from small, rural schools. In his office, he reads pulls out demographic reports to cite data. “At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 15.3 percent of the enrolled student body identify themselves as being Asian; 5.2 percent identify themselves as being black or African American; 9.3 percent identify themselves as being Hispanic of a Latino origin,” he says. “It seems like it’s reality. There has always been a significant Asian population.”
But there’s also a financial factor. International students pay a surcharge of $1,000 to $5,000 per year above the out-of-state tuition rate at the U of I. Pitts has said about half of it goes toward scholarships for Illinois students.
“I understand that, to a large extent, higher education is a business. I get that,” Thapedi says. “But at the same token, I think that we have a duty — I know that I have a duty — to try to equalize the playing field, especially when it comes to public universities. I mean, our kids — especially that are coming from challenged communities, challenged environments — they need every opportunity they can possibly be given. And if students who have been more fortunate cannibalize all the seats, that to me has a sense of unfairness.
“And again, I’m not asking for these particular kids to be given a handout,” he says. “I’m just asking for them to be given an opportunity.”
Thapedi hasn’t put his bill up for a vote yet. He says he’s still refining it, in hopes of winning over opponents.
UPDATE: Another link on UIUC's website still allows potential transfer students to apply: https://admissions.illinois.edu/myillini-apply Applications are accepted through March 1.