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Illinois college students relieved MAP grants available again

Emma Sheikh. | Provided

Emma Sheikh has taken many steps to get the degree she’s paying for herself at Columbia College a whole year early — before she can legally drink a beer.

She packed her high school schedule with dual credit and AP classes, and takes summer classes at Harold Washington College at a fraction of Columbia’s prices. She works about five hours a day before starting the school day, clocking in at a downtown clothing store at 5 a.m.

So last year, when a budget-less state of Illinois didn’t release any money for MAP grants for the 100,000-plus college students who depend on them, Sheikh snagged a costly private loan to stay in school. With a single mom at home in Joliet, a sister also in college and the 25-hour-a-week job, Sheikh didn’t know how else to pay her out-of-pocket costs, which had been an affordable $1,500 a semester.

“I heavily rely on financial aid from the school and from the government and student loans,” the 19-year-old said. “The MAP grant went through my first year of school … Last year was the year it didn’t go through, and Columbia announced they weren’t able to cover us until the budget was secured. I had to pay out it of pocket, almost tripling my out-of-pocket costs.”

Halted at times during the two-year state budget impasse, MAP money is flowing once again to Illinois’ colleges. State Comptroller Susana Mendoza announced late last week the release of $327 million for the need-based MAP program that will help at least 110,000 Illinois residents attending college pay their tuition.

Students like Sheikh are relieved — and will be reimbursed last year’s MAP costs, too.

“The state’s institutions of higher education were devastated by the budget crisis,” Mendoza said in a news release. “Delivering this money will provide immediate aid to students, parents, faculty and administrators who have struggled for more than two years to pay their bills.”

The Monetary Award Program grants help the state’s neediest students attend in-state institutions of higher education, and come with income and academic requirements. Freezing them “turned financial aid on its head,” said Lynne Baker of the Illinois Student Assistance Commission, which administers the grants. “These are students who by definition don’t have the money to go to college.”

In fiscal year 2015, the average MAP award totaled $3,550 for students attending a public university, $3,923 for those going to a private, non-profit college and $944 for community college students.

Baker said she expects that some 120,000 students will be served for the 2016-17 school year that just ended; and for the upcoming school year, legislators increased the total to $401 million.

“We’re really hopeful able to serve more students with that,” she said. “The good thing is, if you got a MAP award on your financial award letter for this fall, you can rely on the fact that the money will be there.”

While the money wasn’t there last year, some colleges and universities found ways to float their students when MAP money didn’t come through.

The University of Illinois at Chicago covered $32 million last year — and took a financial risk in doing so, said Janet Parker, associate chancellor for budget and resource planning at the college that’s the largest recipient of MAP funding.

“We were just hoping they were going to make good on their promise like they did the previous year,” she said, adding that UIC wanted to keep up enrollment and spare its neediest students.

Fortunately, the state’s budget came through just in time, since the university could not have absorbed a $32 million loss, Parker said.

Northwestern University also awarded its MAP-eligible students the equivalent of their state grants last year, dipping into the private university’s endowment earnings and other sources, said Alan Cubbage, vice president for communications.

“There was no impact on Northwestern students from the loss of MAP funding,” Cubbage said.

But when Eastern Illinois University floated MAP grants for its students, it deferred maintenance and laid off hundreds of staffers.