http://ift.tt/2iPAzAeRebecca Susmarski The Register-Mail
GALESBURG — The lack of a state budget could impact low-income students this academic year, and colleges have begun planning for how to assuage the situation if that happens.
The state has promised Illinois students funding for Monetary Award Program grants, but if the General Assembly doesn’t pass a final budget this year, students may not receive that money. Only students with the greatest financial need qualify for MAP grants, which help cover tuition costs and do not need to be repaid.
The faculties and students at Knox College, Monmouth College, Western Illinois University and Carl Sandburg College have felt the impact of uncertain MAP grant funding over the past two years. Karrie Heartlein, director of government and community relations at Knox College, said many Knox students who receive MAP grants have also taken out the “maximum loan amount,” leaving them no other funding option if the MAP grants do not come in.
“As long as there is no state budget, these students are sitting in a sort of financial limbo waiting on their financial aid, and that’s very stressful,” said Karrie Heartlein, director of government and community relations for Knox College. “It’s an incredible burden for students who are trying to get an education.”
Some schools cover MAP funds and wait for state reimbursement, including Western Illinois University and Monmouth College. Western Illinois University covered $16.5 million in MAP funding from the fall of 2015 to the fall of 2016, and as of Jan. 7, 2017, the school has allocated approximately $4.5 million to 2,220 students for the spring 2017 semester, said Darcie Shinberger, assistant vice president for advancement and public services at the university.
The April and June 2016 stopgap budgets reimbursed the university about $11.2 million total for the fall 2015 and spring 2016 semesters, but the university has not yet been reimbursed for the fall 2016 semester. To make sure the university had enough money to cover the grants before then, 502 employees participated in a furlough program that saved approximately $1.5 million in fiscal year 2016 and $530,000 in fiscal year 2017.
Monmouth College funded about $2.4 million to about 550 MAP-eligible students in the 2015-2016 school year, which the stopgap budget reimbursed, said Duane Bonifer, executive director of communications and marketing at the college. The college expects to fund $2.2 million for about 500 MAP-eligible students this school year.
Bonifer said many alumni and friends of the college helped raise the money by making donations specifically for financial aid. The college also maintained a policy of “prudent fiscal management” and not exceeding expenditures.
“Students come up with ideas for programs they’d like to see implemented at the college, and we don’t have the money for that,” Bonifer said. “But in the long term I think it’s more than worth it because you’re able to provide young people with an education, and not just an education but an affordable, high-quality education. That’s part of the sacrifice that you make.”
In the case of community colleges like Carl Sandburg, however, funding can be hard to come by even when schools aim to refrain from spending. Lisa Hanson, director of financial aid at the college, said Sandburg has lost 90 percent of its state funding within the last 10 years; for a comparison, the state provided $500,000 in stopgap money for this academic year when it previously allocated $6 million in 2008.
Sandburg had been able to cover half of MAP funding for its students for the fall 2015 semester, then supplied the other half when state payments came through in January of 2016. Yet as the budget situation became more dire, the college found it couldn’t do that any longer.
To offset the state’s imbalance, Sandburg allows MAP-eligible students who also have Pell grants — federal grants that can be used for school supplies and other education-related items — to apply them toward the MAP money. If the state does make its MAP payments, the school would then reimburse the students on their Pell grants.
“The Pell is $5,815 for 2016-2017, so it’s more than our tuition and fees (about $4,690 in 2014-2015), but it amounts to a third at a public four-year institution and counts for less at a private one,” Hanson said.
Private school Knox College has been able to give students a credit toward their MAP funds when they pay their tuition, then reimburse them. Last year the college agreed to pay for students’ MAP grants if the state did not fulfill its promise of funding — the stopgap budget ultimately covered the funds for fall 2015 through spring 2016 — but the college has not yet decided if it will be able to make that offer for this academic year.
Heartlein estimated that it would cost the college $4,720 per student if it decided to cover the MAP funds for this year, for a total of about $1.5 million for 300 students.
“The college doesn’t have a million and a half dollars just sitting around waiting to be spent,” Heartlein said. “It’s an important decision and it’s something that’s going to take a lot of consideration. And of course, there will be a lot of budget items that perhaps won’t be funded should we make that decision.”
Students at all four schools have spoken out over the past three years in an effort to motivate state legislators to change the MAP grant situation. Sandburg’s website contains links to the General Assembly’s site so students can find out how to contact their legislators, and Hanson often refers students to the General Assembly if they have questions about their MAP grant.
Knox encouraged students, their families and faculty members to write to their legislators about the issue in November 2015, and in April 2016, Heartlein took some students down to Springfield to lobby for the grants. Student government groups at Western Illinois and Monmouth have participated in similar events, and Monmouth has planned to attend another MAP rally in Springfield this spring.
“Whenever budgets get tight, typically the students become more aware and even more involved to some extent with what is happening in terms of the public policy arena, because they see how failure of leadership affects them,” Bonifer said. “I think it’s encouraging in the long run because you produce citizens who are active and engaged, and that’s a good thing.”
Rebecca Susmarski: (309) 343-7181, ext. 261; firstname.lastname@example.org; @RSusmarski