The ongoing state budget impasse, now in its second year, has been particularly tough for low-income college students who rely on the state’s Monetary Award Program — known as the MAP grant — to help cover tuition. The state has delivered only a fraction of the money promised for those grants, and schools have had to choose between covering the grants using their own reserves or billing the students. The latter choice leaves campus financial aid officers with the task of breaking the bad news to students. We asked Sue Swisher, executive director of financial aid at St. Xavier University in Chicago, to tell us how those conversations go.
Q: Is Illinois at all unique in having a MAP type of grant?
A: No. We’re not unique. I mean, every state has some sort of state grant funding.
Q: How has St. Xavier dealt with the MAP grant? I know some schools have floated the kids on it, and some are not.
A: We have made the decision that we would, as of right now, we have posted the funds to their account. I know that there are some schools that will not post the funds to the account until they receive the money from the state. But our position on that is that we want to show the students that they are eligible for it, and we don’t want to create a bill for the balance, in hope that the money will come in.
Q: So far the state has reimbursed schools for MAP back to Spring fy16?
A: That’s correct. We received our fall payment last May, band then we received our spring payment in August. And we have not received anything for this fiscal year.
Q: So for the current school year, you floated them the fall semester, and they’re about to start the spring semester, and you’re floating them for that as well?
Q: Is ‘float’ the right word? I don’t know.
A: Well, we credit their account, but we are not in a position to cover the funding if it does not come in. So that burden will go back onto the students should we not receive the funding.
Q: So they will have to repay that money?
A: Yes. To the university.
Q: And they’re aware of that?
Q: How do you communicate that to them? I’ve seen award letters that have MAP with an asterisk.
A: Right. We’re required by the state to award the funds. We have to call it Illinois MAP grant (estimate), and then we have to have a disclaimer on the award letter using ISAC (Illinois Student Assistance Commission) language that lets the students know that it’s an estimated award pending appropriation from the state.
Q: But that was true before this impasse, right?
A: Correct. That’s something that we’ve always done. Now, ISAC does not tell us how to disperse. They just tell us that we have to award it and it has to appear on their award letter.
Q: So what the students actually see on their award letter hasn’t really changed.
Q: So if you’re a senior, you’re like oh, this is the same ol’ same ol’ and I always get it. So how do you communicate to students that now they need to take that (asterisk) seriously?
A: Our communication is through one-on-one. We’ve done a number of fous groups on campus, they’ve partipated in some of the rallying. So our students are aware of it, that the money’s not here. But then there are other students that are not. They see it on their account and they’re confused. So those are the types of students that we have to have conversations with to make sure that they understand. And actually what we did was: We sat down and talked one-on-one with every student so that they understood what was going on last spring before we knew for sure we were getting the funding (for fy 16).
Q: Those conversations — how did those go?
A: Some of them were very tough, because students did not know what they were going to do. Some of them — because we serve such a high-need population, they have nowhere to go to come up with $4,720 to cover their balance. I mean, some of them may not have taken out loans and can use loans to help cover that balance, but for the majority of them, they have nowhere to go. And their only alternative would be to drop out. Or consider going to, you know, a lower cost school or attending part-time. So it’s very difficult on them, because they don’t have the resources.
Q: What was their reaction? Did you lose any students after those conversations?
A: We don’t think we did but it’s hard to know, because you know, students will withdraw from school and just say that it’s financial and it may not be actually financial aid — it could be other financial obstacles that they’re facing within their families. But if this continues, I think that you could see that. Students may not go to school because that’s a huge chunk of money that they would have to come up with out of their pocket, that they don’t have.
Q: If they’d had it, they wouldn’t have qualified for the MAP grant in the first place?
A: Right! Right. Right.
Q: So sounds like everybody that works for you has to have a box of Kleenex on their desk.
A: Yes, they do. We’ve had many of those types of conversations with our students.
Q: How is that for your staff — to have to be that person to have that conversation?
A: It’s hard. I mean, you want to help these students and guide them in every direction in terms of resources, but a lot of times, what you end up driving them to is to look at student loan options or things like that, and some of them may have already received the maximum federal loan, which means that their parents take out parent loans or the student would have to take out alternative loans, and with that, they may not get approved, especially with alternative loans because it’s best for them to have a co-signer, and most students need a co-signer, and with the tight credit standards, a lot of them will not get approved. So they have nowhere to turn.