Illinois Bill Brings ‘Benefits Navigators’ to College Campuses

The positions will help students at the state's public institutions access federal, state, and local assistance and benefits programs.
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  • Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker signed a trio of higher ed-related bills this week.
  • One requires public institutions to set up benefits navigators to help students.
  • Another requires state public universities and community colleges to implement equity plans.

Public universities in Illinois will soon have "benefits navigators" to help students apply for federal, state, and local assistance and benefits programs.

On Tuesday, Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker signed into law a trio of higher ed-related bills — including House Bill 4201, which requires all public universities and community colleges in the state to set up the benefits navigator positions on campus. It goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2023.

The benefits navigator bill was sponsored by two Democratic lawmakers — state Rep. Maurice A. West II and state Sen. Cristina H. Pacione-Zayas.

In a press release, West described the newly created benefits navigator position as "a go-to person for students needing to traverse campus and community resources." He added that benefits navigators will help to combat housing and food insecurity among college students.

"Having benefits navigators in our colleges and universities will ensure many students obtain the tools and resources they need to successfully complete college and make a better life for themselves and their families," West said.

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Pacione-Zayas said benefits navigators would maximize the numerous assistance programs offered by campuses, communities, and the state.

"Now, an on-campus benefits navigator can help students find and apply for programs for food or housing assistance, scholarships, and more."

At least one other state, Oregon, has also passed legislation to put benefits navigators at state higher education institutions. A bill that passed last year included roughly $5 million in funding to allow schools to hire benefits navigators to help students access assistance and scholarships, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported.

The benefits navigators legislation isn't the only consequential higher education reform signed by Pritzker this week.

House Bill 5464 requires colleges to implement equity plans to boost access to higher education for people of color, women, people with disabilities, students from rural areas, and adult students.

The bill — sponsored by state Rep. Katie Stuart and state Sen. Scott Bennett, both Democrats — allows the Illinois Board of Higher Education to request financial reports from private universities, business, and vocational schools, if needed.

"Education is arguably the single most important factor in promoting social mobility and a thriving economy," Stuart said in a statement. "Enhancing and refining the ability of the Illinois Board of Higher Education to ensure accountability and integrity at colleges and universities will help protect access to high quality education for all Illinoisans."

Pritzker called HB 5464 "a step forward in ensuring everyone — especially our historically underrepresented students — have the resources and investment necessary to thrive in our first-rate public education system."

"Access to affordable, quality higher education shouldn't be a privilege," he said.

Pritzker also signed Senate Bill 3991, which will boost funding to an existing program that establishes a $50 college savings' deposit in the state treasurer's 529 fund for every child born or adopted in Illinois.

The bill was sponsored by Democratic state Rep. Lakesia Collins and Pacione-Zayas in the state Senate. It allows the state treasurer "to increase the deposit amount for children in financially insecure households if funds are available," according to the release.

"Children from underprivileged families deserve the same access to higher education as everyone else," Collins said in a statement. "Allowing additional assistance for these children and requiring improved reporting of racial, ethnic and socioeconomic data regarding beneficiaries will help to address systemic inequality in our state."