Local colleges in a bind again over unfunded MAP grants

http://ift.tt/2n2bNxHBy David Blanchette, Correspondent

Delayed state funding for higher education continues to plague local colleges and universities, forcing many again this spring to replace promised Illinois Monetary Award Program grant funds with institutional money.

In Jacksonville, the Illinois College Board of Trustees agreed last month that this assistance from the school will apply to both the current and upcoming academic years, which will make three years in a row that the school has had to come up with support for students waiting on financial aid from MAP grants.

“This takes the uncertainty of students’ education out of the picture, and anything we can do to support our students, we are going to continue to do,” said Stephanie Chipman, IC vice president of enrollment management and college marketing. “Without these funds, many students would be unable to pursue their dreams of a bachelor’s degree.”

Approximately 450 Illinois College students rely on $1.75 million in MAP grants each year to help offset their tuition costs. IC’s commitment to replace the missing MAP funds comes from a variety of sources including the reallocation of budget dollars and the use of private donations, Chipman said.

“The lack of a budget really makes students and the future economic stability of the state pawns in the larger budget conversation,” Chipman said. 

Reserves, borrowing

At Blackburn College in Carlinville, approximately 350 students, or 62 percent of those enrolled, receive $1.3 million in MAP grants, and like their neighbors in Jacksonville, Blackburn has committed to covering those costs for the current and upcoming academic years.

“We have been fortunate to have donors who have provided us with unrestricted gifts in recent years, so we have enough in reserve … to help us with this on a short-term basis,” said Steve Morris, Blackburn’s vice president for administration and finance. “We certainly won’t have enough for a longer-term operation. To put this in perspective, it’s 10 percent of our overall operating budget.

“A big part of our mission is about making liberal arts education possible regardless of financial need. We serve a lot of first-generation college students from low-income families. MAP funding here covers almost 30 percent of the overall tuition cost per student. If we lose it going forward, it will definitely have an impact on our students and on the institution.”

Lincoln College also has committed to help the one-half of its 1,000 students who receive $2 million annually in MAP grants. The school will use a combination of its cash reserves and short-term borrowing.

Susan Boehler, vice president for enrollment management and student services at Lincoln College, said the “lack of state funding affects all Illinois colleges and universities’ ability to recruit and retain students. Like other institutions, we lose students to out-of-state schools because there isn’t a financial hook to keep them here.”

The University of Illinois Springfield will continue to cover the unfunded MAP grants as it and the other U of I campuses have done in the past. That will total $2.4 million for 742 students this academic year.

“It’s a tough time for students to worry and stress, so when it’s time to register for classes, we told students to go ahead and register because we will cover that MAP grant,” said UIS spokesman Derek Schnapp. “We’ve had to dip into reserves, we’ve done a lot of cost-cutting everywhere we can, and that’s how we are continuing to move on.

“It would help the anxiety of many students and families if a state budget could come forward and higher education is fully funded. It would take a lot of pressure off of a lot of families in Illinois.”

No degree, and debt 

The Illinois Student Assistance Commission administers the MAP program, and the last year the state had a budget, fiscal 2015, a $364 million state appropriation was used to distribute MAP grants to 128,000 Illinois students, according to ISAC’s director of communications, Lynne Baker. In fiscal 2016, ISAC received $320 million that was used to pay claims for MAP grants for the fall 2015 and spring 2016 academic semesters. These stopgap measures passed by the Illinois General Assembly arrived so late in the academic year that only 107,000 students could be served by MAP grants.

Gov. Bruce Rauner’s proposed fiscal 2018 budget includes an additional $36 million that if passed would serve up to 13,000 more students, Baker said.

Last fall, ISAC sent a voluntary survey to the 132 MAP-approved schools to ask how, in light of the budget delay, they were handling MAP. Of the 96 schools that responded, 60 percent reported that they credited, or listed as pending, the full MAP award to student accounts for the first term of the 2016-17 academic year, while 53 percent of the respondents said they would credit the full award for the second term of 2016-17.

All of the schools covering the MAP costs indicated they were doing so with the expectation that they will receive payment for MAP from the state, Baker said.

“If you are a student in a school that is not able to fund the money as the school awaits payment for MAP, then you are actually being asked to come up with the money, which is really turning financial aid on its head,” Baker said. “The purpose of financial aid is to help these students go to school because they don’t have the funds to pay for it.”

ISAC also recently surveyed MAP-eligible students to ask how the budget delay had affected their their educational goals. There were nearly 12,000 responses to the student survey, including more than 4,500 written comments, Baker said.

“Students (whose schools are not covering the MAP grants) have told us that they are literally having to choose between paying the rent and food or paying their tuition,” Baker said. “Students have had to drop out for a year, and one thing we do know is that the longer it takes a student to graduate, the less likely that the student will graduate.

“The worst possible outcome is that you now have students who have had to drop out who don’t have a degree and have student loan debt.”

‘Injustice’ to students 

Only 18 percent of Lincoln Land Community College students are MAP grant eligible, according to Lynn Whalen, executive director of public relations and marketing. She said the institution offers Foundation Scholarships, work/study opportunities and no-interest installment payment plans to help students with expenses, but the college isn’t covering the cost of the missing MAP grants for students.

“Last year, Lincoln Land students eligible for MAP were awarded their funds when MAP grant funding was released by the state of Illinois,” Whalen said. “This year, those funds have not yet been released.”

MacMurray College in Jacksonville also is not in a position to cover the costs from the promised state MAP grants, but is leaving student accounts as “pending” until the MAP funds arrive from the state.

“Nearly half of the students at MacMurray College qualify for the MAP grant and rely heavily on this and other financial aid programs to assist them in achieving their educational goals,” said MacMurrray director of one-stop student services, Laci Engelbrecht. “To still be waiting, in March, for the funding promised to them by our state is an injustice.”

Engelbrecht said the Illinois Student Assistance Commission advised colleges to estimate MAP grants on financial aid awards for the 2016-17 school year, with the hope that the state’s leaders would pass a budget.

“Colleges are again advised to estimate the MAP grant on 2017-18 awards, which will only further worsen the situation until the state passes and approves a budget fully funding MAP grants,” Engelbrecht said. “To withhold funding for higher education decreases Illinois’ ability to attract and retain students and to compete with colleges in neighboring states.”

— Contact David Blanchette through the metro desk: 788-1517.

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Local colleges in a bind again over unfunded MAP grants

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