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Brown: State grants no reassurance to low-income college students

Sen. Pat McGuire in 2013. | Larry Kane/For Sun-Times Media

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For the second straight year, the state of Illinois is leaving tens of thousands of low-income college students in the lurch about whether it will provide them with financial aid.

The stopgap budget deal reached last week by Gov. Bruce Rauner and the General Assembly included money to reimburse colleges and universities for last school year’s Monetary Award Program, commonly referred to as MAP grants.

But there was no funding in the budget for the coming school year, leaving both the schools and the students facing the same uncertainty as before.

Drawing on last year’s experience, many schools are already stepping up to reassure their students that they will cover the amount the state grant was supposed to provide toward their tuition. To do otherwise is to invite a further deterioration of their enrollment.

But in some cases this amounts to little more than cannibalizing federal education grants on which the students were also relying to afford college.


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I’m sure many of you would rather give the state budget stuff a rest for a while. I agree that a stopgap budget is better than nothing, and there’s no real expectation of additional movement for a while anyway.

It should not be forgotten, however, that the partial year budget also leaves a lot of unfinished business.

Right near the top of that list for me is the state continuing to turn its back on its most important college financial aid program, an inexplicable oversight considering the importance of higher education in today’s world.

It’s great that the governor and legislators are putting more money than ever into the education system for pre-schoolers through high school students. But I’m baffled as to why there is so little emphasis on the fact that the state’s obligation doesn’t stop there.

The Illinois Student Assistance Commission, which administers the MAP grants, made awards to only 101,000 students last year, down from 128,000 the previous year, because of less state funding.

As always, there were many more students who qualified for the assistance based on their income than received it.

“It’s a crime that we’re driving low income students away from college,” said Sen. Pat McGuire, D-Crest Hill, chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee, who has worked to keep the lack of MAP funding in the spotlight.

McGuire noted that 13 percent fewer Illinois students applied for college financial aid last year than the previous year.

“Does that mean that the word is out among students: Don’t bother?” McGuire asked.

The Illinois Student Assistance Commission released a survey Tuesday indicating that one in seven of the students who responded said they might not return to college in the fall or will have extreme difficulty doing so.

The survey was taken before the stopgap budget deal was reached, but it’s hard to see how any of them would have found much reassurance in another year without any promises that their MAP grants will be funded.

Among the universities that have already said they will cover MAP grants for their students and hope to recover the money from the state later are Southern Illinois, Northern Illinois, DePaul and Northwestern.

A Western Illinois University spokesman said the school has decided to cover MAP grants for the fall semester, but has not made a decision about the spring semester.

Chicago State and Eastern Illinois, among the hardest hit by the state budget crisis, did not respond to my inquiries.

City Colleges will not cover the grants for its students, a spokesman said late Wednesday.

“How do students and families make plans?” asked McGuire.

He cited reports that 21 community colleges and five private four-year colleges in the state decided they could not afford to float their students the money for this past spring semester.

The stopgap budget will help colleges keep their doors open. That’s not much use to the students who can’t afford to enroll.

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