Brown: Illinois college students remain budget hostages

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Tens of thousands of college students across Illinois are still awaiting definitive word on whether their individual schools will cover second semester financial aid payments bollixed up in the state budget fiasco.

The problem involves state-funded Monetary Assistance Program—called MAP—grants that are the state’s primary form of tuition assistance to low-income students.

The MAP grants are part of the forgotten 10 percent of state programs left by the wayside during the ongoing budget impasse between Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Democrat-controlled Illinois Legislature.

While court orders, continuing appropriations and other legal measures have allowed 90 percent of state government to continue spending as usual without a budget, the forgotten 10 percent are left dangling without any means to tap into state funding.

Among those left out are mental health programs, domestic violence shelters and all of higher education, including the 125,000 students who receive MAP grants.

For the fall semester, colleges and universities throughout Illinois helped students who had been awarded a MAP grant by covering the amount they were expecting to receive, in anticipation that a state budget deal would be struck and the money would be made available.

OPINION

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But with January right around the corner and no budget deal in sight, students are caught in the middle waiting to find out whether they will have enough money to pay for the spring semester.

The fear is that some schools will not continue to cover the missing grant money, said Sean Anderson, a student member of the Illinois Board of Higher Education.

“It’s the uncertainty that causes us to worry about our financial situation rather than our grades,” Anderson said.

For Anderson, a 23-year-old Roosevelt University senior from Naperville, this is more than theoretical.

A MAP grant recipient himself, Anderson said he won’t be able to enroll for the spring semester without the $1,400 he anticipated from the program.

While many of the state’s four-year public universities have already announced that they will honor the MAP grants again for the spring, some community colleges have signaled that they cannot afford to do so.

In a letter to students last week, University of Illinois Interim Chancellor Barbara Wilson said the school will credit MAP grants toward student accounts for the spring semester.

But she warned that if the state doesn’t come through with the funding, “we may be required to remove these funds from your university account and you might have to repay the university.”

That’s a lousy way to do business, which I don’t blame on Wilson.

Wilson noted that the university considers the repayment “highly unlikely,” but most people thought it was unlikely we’d be sitting here in November with no movement on a budget, too.

It’s a good reminder that very little was actually accomplished by last week’s “compromise” by Rauner in which he abandoned his effort to dismantle state programs that help the working poor pay for child care and provide services to the elderly and disabled in their homes.

The state still needs a plan to actually pay for all its programs, which is going to require a tax increase. Rauner says he’ll support a tax increase if he wins some restrictions on collective bargaining rights for public employees, among other things.

Sen. Pat McGuire (D-Crest Hill), chairman of the Higher Education Committee, won approval in August for a bill that would provide $373 million for MAP grants, the same amount originally proposed by Rauner.

But McGuire said Rauner told him he would not sign the Senate bill, which is probably one reason it has failed to move through the House.

Appropriating the money would not solve the underlying problem that the state is spending more money than it has available, but that hasn’t stopped the governor from plowing ahead with other spending.

Illinois already has reduced the amount spent on MAP grants over the past decade, even as the number of students who meet the income guidelines has increased.

The average award per student is approximately $2,800. The money goes directly to the school for tuition and fees.

In hearings held across the state, McGuire heard from students who explained how important the MAP grants are to them.

“They’re perplexed that the state would let them down like this,” McGuire said.

So am I.

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