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Students, state treasurer, colleges urge Rauner to sign student aid bill

Sean Anderson is among the 130,000 Illinois students whose financial aid from the state has been held hostage by the budget impasse.

Raised by a single parent who died a few weeks before he graduated from high school, he has been putting himself through college for six years. He was finally seeing light at the end of the tunnel, expecting to graduate from Roosevelt University in May with a business management degree.

But without his Monetary Award Program grant, also known as MAP, that’s now in jeopardy.

“I’m a MAP grant recipient because I’m an independent student, which means the expected family contribution is from myself. I’m my own family,” Anderson said Wednesday at a press conference, where students and officials of several universities urged Gov. Bruce Rauner to restore MAP funding.

In June, the program’s funding was killed when Rauner, after battling with the Democrat-controlled Legislature, vetoed a budget for fiscal year 2016, which started July 1. Needy students had already been awarded the grants for the 2015-16 school year and enrolled based on the expectation they would get the funds.

Illinois Treasurer Michael Frerichs | Maudlyne Ihejirika/Sun-Times

“Now classes have already started, and students have shown up, and it’s unfair that their tuition bills are still in limbo,” complained state Treasurer Michael Frerichs, who called the press conference. Frerichs, a former state senator who represented Champaign-Urbana and the University of Illinois, chaired the Senate Higher Education Committee. Now he oversees the state’s college savings plans.

“I commend colleges and universities that have credited MAP grant recipients and allowed these students to attend classes, but that can only last so long,” Frerichs said. “And some colleges and universities are not in a financial position to go without these payments, especially without a state higher education budget in place. Action on this issue needs to be taken sooner rather than later.”

Joining Frerichs were State Rep. Elgie Sims (D-Chicago), and State Rep. Kelly Burke (D-Oak Lawn), the sponsor of a House bill to restore the funding. The Senate recently passed a bill restoring $373 million to the MAP program. Standing with them were representatives of Chicago’s Illinois Institute of Technology and DePaul, Roosevelt and Chicago State universities.

Asked why the governor won’t fund MAP grants, Rauner spokeswoman Catherine Kelly forwarded written testimony that Richard Goldberg, Rauner’s deputy chief of staff for legislative affairs, sent to the Senate before it approved the MAP funding bill.

“As you know, Governor Rauner demonstrated his commitment to maintaining level funding for the Monetary Award Program in his introduced budget. But as you also know, the Governor’s introduced budget proposed significant spending reductions across other areas of state government — none of which have been accepted by the majority,” Goldberg wrote. “Absent those spending reductions, the state of Illinois simply cannot afford SB 2043 at this time.”

But the college students at Wednesday’s press conference said they resent being used as political pawns, complaining they have neither lobbyists nor attorneys to file a lawsuit — as state employees, advocates for the elderly, disabled and poor, and even state lottery winners have done — to force the state to provide obligated money despite the budget stalemate.

“I’m here today to represent not only myself but my fellow CSU students and students throughout Illinois who rely on MAP funding to afford college,” said Alejandra Le, a junior studying psychology at Chicago State University. “Our message today is simple. If MAP grants are not funded, college students across this state will incur more student debt, will be forced to drop out. I and my fellow college students do not deserve to have our education put at risk because of a budget that is beyond our control.”

“I and my fellow college students do not deserve to have our education put at risk because of a budget that is beyond our control,” said Alejandra Le, a junior studying psychology at Chicago State University. | Maudlyne Ihejirika/Sun-Times