College students and their parents who rely on publicly funded grants to help pay for higher education had better get a jump on their paperwork this year.
The U.S. Department of Education began accepting the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) on Oct. 1 this year, three months earlier than previous years. All students who want financial aid need to complete the form, and students and parents will report 2015 income instead of the current year.
In the south suburbs and throughout Illinois, it’s a race to file the FAFSA. The form determines who receives money through the Monetary Award Program (MAP), which is administered by the Illinois Student Assistance Commission (ISAC). There isn’t enough money for everyone who wants it, so funding is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis.
“Please be aware that, based on application volume and appropriated funds for any academic year, grant funding is likely to be depleted before all eligible applicants can be awarded,” ISAC says on its website. “When this occurs, ISAC will announce a suspension date.”
College students receiving MAP grants, state universities and community colleges rank among the hardest-hit casualties of the budget impasse between the Democratic-controlled Illinois General Assembly and Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner. The stalemate is taking a toll on higher education.
In September, Governors State University in University Park said it was closing two business and trade centers that have helped create thousands of jobs in the region. GSU President Elaine Maimon said the closures were “a result of the ongoing Illinois budget crisis.”
“We must reallocate the funds currently used to match federal and state dollars to departments which will maintain our high quality of student service,” Maimon said in a statement.
Joliet Junior College also closed its Small Business Development Center, citing the same budgetary pressures as GSU.
The six-month stopgap budget approved by the governor and legislature over the summer may have eased some of the urgency over funding essential state services, but uncertainty over higher education funding is negatively impacting enrollment.
Chicago State University reported last week that only 86 new students enrolled in its freshman class. This year’s total enrollment of 3,578 is less than half the 7,362 students who attended CSU in 2010, the Chicago Tribune reported.
Other state universities also reported significant declines in freshman enrollment this year. Eastern Illinois University in Charleston said its freshman class was 25 percent smaller than a year ago, and Southern Illinois University at Carbondale said it had 24 percent fewer freshmen.
National media have noted the trend. “Higher education in Illinois is dying,” the New York Times said in a headline in June. An August story headlined, “Competitive neighboring states poach Illinois college students,” by the Illinois News Network — a subsidiary of the Illinois Policy Institute — reported college students are fleeing Illinois for Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri and other states.
State universities and community colleges need stability. Program cuts and enrollment declines are just the latest indicators of how uncertainty over the state’s funding commitments is threatening the future of higher education in Illinois.
Institutions are stuck in a Catch-22. Their appeals to restore consistent state funding must be reserved, as any public statements might be used against them. Prospective students may choose to attend college elsewhere if state schools ring the alarm too vigorously.
The Illinois Board of Higher Education, chaired by former House Minority Leader Tom Cross, oversees planning, policy-making and finances at the state’s system of colleges and universities. James Applegate, executive director, writes a column — Applegate’s Update — in the IBHE Bulletin newsletter.
On Sept. 23, he published a piece that mentioned a goal of having 60 percent of the Illinois workforce holding a college credential by 2025. To achieve that goal, the state especially needs to support low-income students, he wrote.
“ISAC’s most recent data show how important the MAP program is to Illinois’ college completion goals, to the 128,000 students relying on MAP already in college, and to the hundreds of thousands of students going forward that will need MAP support to attend and complete college,” Applegate wrote.
“It behooves all of us to support continued funding for the MAP program that will allow these students to fulfill their college dreams and set Illinois on a course to meet its talent needs for a 21st century economy.”
Note the use of the word “behooves,” which by definition means appealing to moral and ethical duties and responsibilities.
Applegate works for the state, so it’s understandable if his criticism over state funding uncertainty is tempered. He can’t go biting the hand that feeds too hard. Others can be more blunt in their assessment of the state of higher education in Illinois.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities — a nonpartisan Washington, D.C.-based think tank — says per-student funding for Illinois’ public colleges and universities is 54 percent below 2008 levels. Only one other state has cut higher education funding more than Illinois: Arizona (56 percent).
“Cuts to Illinois’ higher education system are making college less affordable and threatening the quality of education students receive at the state’s public four-year and community colleges,” CBPP says.
“Having a highly educated workforce is critical to our economic future, and we need a strong and high-quality higher education system to make that happen. Ensuring adequate investment in our state’s colleges and universities requires that policymakers make sound decisions about how to raise and use resources and avoid shortsighted tax cuts.”
I think it’s important to note that while the stopgap budget provided about $1 billion for higher education, state universities will only receive 82 percent to 90 percent of funding they received in 2015. Plus, the temporary budget is only good through Dec. 31 (except for K-12 education). Colleges and universities still face uncertainty in the middle of the current academic year.
Springfield seems to hate how funds used to pay for higher education are being spent on pensions instead of more directly benefiting students. Illinois needs pension reform, no doubt. I think it’s wrong to punish college students, undermine the goals of having a better-educated workforce and hinder future economic development by shortchanging higher education funding.