Unfunded MAP grants cause concerns


BLOOMINGTON — Financial award letters are going to college students and students-to-be, notifying them of the type of assistance they will receive for the 2017-18 school year, including their “estimated” grant from the state’s Monetary Award Program.

“Even in a normal year, it says, ‘estimated grant,’” explained Lynne Baker, managing director of communications for the Illinois Student Assistance Commission.

But, as anyone in higher education — or the state of Illinois — will tell you, this isn’t a “normal” year.

With less than three months left in the current fiscal year, Illinois still has no budget and that has some schools worried.

Many, including Illinois State University and Lincoln College, fronted the money to students this academic year so they could enroll, hoping the state eventually will come through, as it did last year.

But even the so-called “lifeline” bill approved by the House last week would only cover half of the spring semester grants — if the Senate and governor go along with it.

“We’ve tried to be responsible,” said Lincoln College President David Gerlach. “In good faith, we rolled the dice again” and credited students for the state grants.

For Lincoln College, where about 47 percent of the students receive MAP grants, that amounts to about $1.1 million a semester, according to Gerlach.

He said the college hasn’t “crossed that bridge” to decide whether students would be responsible for paying the money if the state doesn’t come through.

In an ISAC survey last fall of schools whose students receive MAP grants, about half of those that credited students’ accounts said they would expect students to make up any shortfall or they hadn’t decided yet.

Even schools that aren’t expecting students to make up a shortfall, for now, say the situation isn’t sustainable.

“We’ve been fortunate that ISU has been able to cover it for the current year,” said Bridget Curl, interim director of financial aid at ISU, where about 4,000 students receive MAP grants. Those grants total about $15 million to $16 million a year.

No decision has been made on whether that will be repeated for the 2017-18 school year, according to Curl.

That uncertainty makes it difficult “to try to counsel families that are trying to make decisions by May 1” on where to go to school, Curl said.

It’s difficult for schools, too.

“It’s disastrous for planning and moving forward,” said Gerlach. “I’m planning years ahead, not a year behind.”

Even though stopgap legislation eventually covered MAP grants for the 2015-16 school year, ISU did not receive the state’s payment for fall semester grants until spring and did not receive payment for spring term until September, according to Curl.

The impact is felt in many ways, as reported by the ISAC survey. Some students have to take out larger loans. Others have to work longer hours, which cuts into their study time.

Even at fiscal year 2015 funding levels, students who otherwise would be eligible for grants don’t receive them because the money runs out long before they apply. 

About 150,000 students each year are turned away, Illinois Board of Higher Education Chairman Tom Cross told lawmakers in testimony before two legislative committees last month.

ISAC Executive Director Eric Zarnikow testified that MAP recipients graduate at about the same rate as other students in the same college while facing greater financial obstacles than their peers.

“Politicians from both sides of the aisle have said this is a very important program,” said Gerlach. “We need to get this done.”

Gerlach noted that New York, where he was a college administrator before coming to Lincoln in 2015, just announced a plan to offer free tuition to its residents. Meanwhile, Illinois is the second largest “exporter” of students in the country.

“New York state is investing significantly in higher education,” said Gerlach. “We can’t expect Illinois to turn around if 40 percent of its high school grads go out of state for college.”

Follow Lenore Sobota on Twitter: @pg_sobota

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April 11, 2017 at 10:38PM

Unfunded MAP grants cause concerns

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