Pritzker signs package of bills to expand higher education access

Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed legislation designed to increase access to Illinois’ higher education system, close equity gaps, and improve student protections and operational effectiveness.

The bills, signed into law June 9, expand resources available to students and build on the administration’s efforts to expand equitable access to public universities and community colleges.

  • House Bill 4201 helps students at state universities and community colleges access benefits through “benefits navigators.” Each institution is tasked with assigning a benefits navigator for the purpose of guiding students to seek and apply for any federal, state, or local program that provides assistance or benefits for which they are eligible. It goes into effect Jan. 1, 2023.
  • Senate Bill 3991 amends the Illinois Higher Education Savings Program, also known as the Children’s Savings Program, which was established to start each baby born or adopted in Illinois with a $50 college savings deposit in the Treasurer’s 529 fund. This legislation allows the state treasurer to increase the deposit amount for children in financially insecure households if funds are available. SB 3991 goes into effect Jan. 1, 2023.
  • House Bill 5464 requires State public universities and community colleges to develop and implement equity plans and practices to increase the access, retention, completion, and student loan repayment rates for minority students, rural students, adult students, women, and people with disabilities who are traditionally underrepresented in education programs and activities.

IBHE Executive Director Ginger Ostro

The Illinois Board of Higher Education (IBHE), in collaboration with the Illinois Community College Board, will guide implementation of the new equity plans. The bill also allows IBHE to request financial reports from private universities, private business, and vocational schools, if needed, to help institutions stay on solid financial footing. HB 5464 is effective immediately.

“The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have had a dramatic impact on students throughout our state, from pre-k to higher education. We also know it has been especially challenging for students in marginalized and rural communities,” said Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton

State Rep. Maurice West (D-Rockford), lead House sponsor of HB 4201 , added, “By creating an on-campus point-person who can assist students with accessing benefits, we will enable more people to receive aid with food, housing and other essential services. Particularly during these difficult times, this new law will complement financial aid offices and help with addressing critical issues outside of scholarships and tuition aid. If we want our students to succeed in the classroom and unlock their full potential, let’s make sure they have the basic support they deserve.”

Benefits navigators

Benefits navigators will participate in a consortium to share and develop best practices as they help students obtain needed benefits and assistance to reach their educational goals. The public university consortium will be overseen by the IHBE, and the Illinois Community College Board will oversee the community college consortium.

Savings program

Illinois Community College Board Executive Director Brian Durham

The Illinois Higher Education Savings Program, also known as the Illinois Children’s Savings Account program, was first established in 2019 and was provided initial funding of $2.5 million in the FY 2023 budget (PA 102-698). Through this program, all children born or adopted in Illinois on or after January 1, 2023, will have access to a 529 College Savings account with a $50 starter deposit. Research from similar programs in other states has shown that the presence of such a savings fund increases the likelihood of children attending college by three times and the likelihood of them completing college by four times.

“Given how important and costly it is to attend college or trade school, every child born or adopted in Illinois, should have the tools to save and pay for their education,” said State Treasurer Michael Frerichs, whose office will administer the program as part of its IL 529 College Savings programs.

Additionally, the State Treasurer’s office is now tasked with reporting the rate of seed deposits claimed and certain demographic information of beneficiaries and of children in financially insecure households.

Omnibus Bill

In addition to requiring state public universities and community colleges to develop and implement equity plans, HB 5464 also requires all public and private postsecondary institutions to report student data to ensure IBHE has a complete picture of the State’s college students and ensure progress is made toward achieving educational equity.

“This is a big, important step forward in reducing disparities in outcomes for underrepresented students, faculty, and staff as each institution will develop a plan and implement strategies to address its own equity gaps,” said IBHE Executive Director Ginger Ostro. “A key goal of the state’s higher education strategic plan is to close equity gaps in access, enrollment, retention and completion of postsecondary education, especially for historically marginalized populations, and the changes to current statute by HB 5464 will help do just that.”

Community colleges serve the largest number of underrepresented students in the state.

“In order to continue to provide meaningful education to all, we must invest more deeply in plans that support and promote inclusion and diversity at all of our institutions of higher education,” said Illinois Community College Board Executive Director Brian Durham.