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Students stiffed on college aid

Updated: May 20, 2013 2:15AM

Back in January I wrote about the Illinois Dream Fund nonprofit and its initiative to raise money through private donations and award college scholarships to undocumented Illinois students in need of financial aid.

This was significant because by law undocumented students cannot receive taxpayer-based assistance. Financial assistance via government-funded pell grants and state-sponsored tuition waivers is out of the question.

The students can, however, receive financial aid through private groups, and this is where the Dream Fund enters the picture.

In August 2011, Gov. Pat Quinn signed the Illinois Dream Act, appointed a commission and established the fund to raise private donations — at no taxpayer expense — and award scholarships beginning with the 2013-2014 school term.

While states such as Arizona, Georgia and Alabama have enacted laws to drive away undocumented immigrants, Quinn did the opposite. He enacted a law to assist some.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel also pledged his support. Actually, he raised an impressive $275,000, a sum announced in January and mentioned in a Crain’s Chicago Business article May 2.

Yet there seemed to be reluctance on the mayor’s part to hand over the money. Early last week two sources with knowledge of the nonprofit’s work said the mayor had not delivered his collected donations.

Though pledges so far have exceeded $1 million, fewer scholarships would be given without the promised $275,000.

Tanya Cabrera, who heads the fund and is a staff member at Illinois Institute of Technology, declined to comment on the mayor’s contributions. But she confirmed that the organization would not authorize scholarships without funds in hand to cover them.

“These kids have hopes,” she said. “We are that hope. I don’t want to say, ‘We’re going to give you money’ and then take it away.”

Another board member, Ron Perlman, who runs a teaching and learning center in Arlington Heights, said: “We have to fund with integrity. We never want to over-promise and under-deliver.”

I sent repeated messages to the mayor’s office last week, by email and phone, but they were ignored until Friday evening. Spokeswoman Kathleen Strand responded that yes, the money was being released.

But why the holdup?

One source, who is not authorized to speak publicly about the group’s work, said the mayor wanted to use a large portion of the funds, more than $100,000, for a paid executive director to be hired.

That’s right: Instead of funding the scholarships, the mayor wanted to fund a salary for a political hire.

This power play went way out of bounds. By law, only the commission and governor have authority to make such changes. Strand even said such a change would have to come from the state.

Perlman said in the future a paid director might make sense but the organization can’t afford that now.

The goal is to fund 100 scholarships: $6,000 to qualifying students attending four-year colleges and $2,000 to those attending community colleges. Cabrera said she wants the scholarships to be renewable for at least one year.

Overwhelmed by nearly 1,500 applications, board members fell behind in their selection process, as reported by Crain’s.

But they are almost caught up and plan to let recipients know of their awards June 7.

In a way the delay was helpful. It gave the mayor more time to do the right thing.

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