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Marlen Garcia: College kids struggle to survive as state lets them down

Jacqueline Suriano of suburban Riverside has begun a crowdfunding campaign to help pay her college bills. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

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When I was growing up, a turning point in my family’s climb out of poverty came when my oldest brother took a fulltime job at 19. It’s a familiar immigrant story: He gave up his dreams and became a custodian at a school to help my parents keep a roof over our heads.

All of us, seven kids in all, were pretty much on our own to make it in life beyond high school. That’s the reality for many teens whose parents barely survive on minimum wage.

This brings me to another turning point: College. It gave me a way out. From books, TV programs, classmates and teachers, I knew by the time I reached my teens that for me it was the only way. And it’s still the message we give kids.


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But here’s the difference: I, and others with financial hardships in decades past could count on government-backed grants and loans along with reasonable tuition rates. The biggest source of support for me was a Monetary Award Program grant from the state. For three years it covered my tuition and fees in full at Illinois State University, and in my last year it covered all but $400.

It is programs like MAP that give students a chance to leave poverty in the rearview mirror. The state’s neediest students have received MAP grants for more than 50 years.

But this year students haven’t seen a dime from the grants. The program is a victim of the budget stalemate between Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democrats.

On Wednesday, as State Sen. Pat McGuire, D-Joliet, announced a bill that would release some of the MAP funding, a memo from the governor’s office ripped universities for skyrocketing tuition costs. The governor makes a good point – steep tuition increases are a problem across the country —but Rauner fails to concede that the state has been abysmal in its funding of higher education, which plays a role in rate hikes for Illinois colleges and universities.

He strikes me as sorely out of touch.

These days, MAP grants cover only a fraction of tuition and fees, but every little bit goes a long way.

For each of the last four years, Mitch Dickey, a senior at the University of Illinois from Bourbonnais, has been eligible to receive close to the maximum of $4,720 under MAP. Talk about a go-getter. He is student body president at the U of I.

Dickey says he is fortunate because the U of I is fronting the money for the MAP grants.

Here in Chicago, Jacqueline Suriano, a senior at the Illinois Institute of Technology, has to come up with $2,225 because IIT will not cover MAP for the spring term. She opened a account last month and had raised $220 as of Thursday morning.

Suriano is working extra hours at two jobs to come up with the money while trying to maintain straight A’s in psychology and computer science. She is thinking about moving overseas to pursue less expensive graduate schooling and career work. Our state and our country would be losing an ambitious, intelligent young woman, and that’s disturbing. When I told her that, Suriano became emotional.

“It’s not just me,” she said. “I know there are people in a worse situation. I don’t think that’s fair.”


Follow Marlen Garcia on Twitter: @MarlenGarcia777