Illinois must invest more in higher education

We urge the governor and lawmakers to approve the Illinois Board of Higher Education’s recommended budget.

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Students walk through campus on August 2022 at the University of Illinois Chicago.

Students walk through campus on August 2022 at the University of Illinois Chicago.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

When Illinois created the Monetary Award Program (MAP) in 1967, it did so to broaden access to higher education by covering the full cost of tuition at its public colleges for all low-income students. But decades of underinvestment have had the opposite effect: Thousands of eligible students still have insufficient financial support, or no support at all.

So after years of underfunding and lost opportunity, the state’s landmark investment last year of an additional $122 million for MAP was a huge victory, increasing the maximum award from $5,496 to $7,200 and providing awards to all eligible applicants.

Yet the average MAP award today still covers just 38% of tuition and fees at Illinois’ public universities. There is clearly more work to do.

That’s why the Coalition for Transforming Higher Education Funding supports the Illinois Board of Higher Education’s FY24 budget recommendation of a $50 million increase in this critical need-based program. If included in Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s budget and accepted by the General Assembly, IBHE’s proposed investment in MAP would continue the momentum seen the last few years, with nearly 146,000 students served in FY22.

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With such an increase, MAP grants could be awarded to every eligible student and cover more of their tuition costs. That’s a win for Illinois college students, particularly Black, Latino and first-generation students, and students from low-income backgrounds who disproportionately rely on MAP.

Just last month, fall data showed freshman enrollment at our public universities was up 5% from last year, with Black and Latino students driving the growth. That is great news, and it underscores the need to prioritize policies and funding that ensure every student seeking a college degree has that opportunity. In doing so, Illinois will invest in its students and the state’s future prosperity.

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But financial aid is only part of the equation. A MAP grant can help a student get to or return to school, but it doesn’t lower tuition and fees or ensure students have access to services — housing assistance, campus food pantries, mental health counseling, on-campus child care — to help them persist to degree completion. These kinds of supports are critical and can be the difference between persisting or dropping out.

To provide these supports, IBHE is recommending a 7.5% increase in appropriations for public universities, distributed first to institutions serving students with the greatest need. This approach reflects reality — college students today are juggling family responsibilities, jobs and life challenges, and institutions must have the resources to support them.

We urge the governor and lawmakers to follow the IBHE recommendation on funding and equity.

And we wait for a longer-term, urgently-needed solution to college affordability and access. The Commission on Equitable Public University Funding is working on a distribution model that prioritizes student need in an equitable manner. Recommendations are due out in July, and should be followed by thoughtful solutions.

We’re counting on our state to keep Illinois higher education on a path to being adequately funded, student-centered and sustainable.

Lisa Castillo Richmond is a founding member of the Coalition for Transforming Higher Education Funding, a member of the Commission on Equitable Public University Funding, and executive director of the Partnership for College Completion.

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