State grants for college students could be slashed in budget cuts

  • By Peter Sachs
  • Staff Writer
  • June 18, 2009 @ 7:00 AM

Hundreds of millions of dollars in state financial aid funding for college students are up in the air amid massive budget cuts, and in a doomsday scenario, it could all run out by January.

Last year, the Monetary Award Program handed out $384 million to 145,000 students statewide, including $130 million to students at schools in Chicago.

But as the Illinois Student Assistance Commission saw applications for MAP grants for the coming school year increase 30 percent, the department is bracing to get only half of the $440 million it had expected to get.

“We have to give people fair warning so that they can make plans,” says Andrew Davis, the executive director of the Illinois State Assistance Commission. “I think it is appropriate to let them know that as of this point, there is no money.”

Under the worst-case scenario, students would only get $820 in aid for every $1,000 that had been promised for the fall semester, and no funding in the spring.

While officials say they’re not trying to bring theatrics to the discussion, without a current state budget, they are having to proceed with the worst case in mind.

“Timing is very important and so while the (state) budget technically is only two weeks late now … the reality is that student aid and finance packages are being put together right now,” Davis says.

That has administrators at many universities worried.

“A radical shift like that would create significant problems for our students,” says Randy Kangas, the assistant vice president for planning and budgeting for the University of Illinois schools. UIC’s students got $23.9 million in state grants last year, but the school is budgeting for less than $10 million in those funds for the coming year.

Officials at the City Colleges of Chicago, where students got $12.5 million in the state grants last year, have similar worries.

“Obviously we’re concerned because a lot of students get MAP grants,” says Mike Mutz, the district’s vice chancellor for development.

The potential cut in MAP funds could trickle more broadly, too, since many students who get the state grants also get federal Pell grants. If students decide to delay college because they don’t get the state grants they need, Davis says, that could mean as much as $100 million in Pell grants wouldn’t come to schools in the state, either.

At DePaul University, where about a third of undergraduates got the state grants last year, officials will look for ways to fill the gaps if the grants don't come through so that students don't have to drop out.

“That is the reality of the situation,” says DePaul spokesman John Holden. “That kind of goes without saying. So we’re obviously as committed as possible to helping as many students as possible find alternate ways to continue their education."

Davis says his office supports a tax increase to help fund the state grants. But Republicans in Springfield have been resistant to tax increases to help plug the state’s budget holes, even though most legislators and Gov. Pat Quinn support MAP.

“We know MAP is a high priority of Gov. Quinn’s and a high priority for the legislature,” Davis says. “MAP is a widely and well-supported program. What is not widely and well-supported are tax increases.”

Nothing is set in stone yet. The same officials worried about students dropping out of college as the state grants dry up agree they’re hopeful that funding will be restored.

“We just have to hope that this is resolved by the January timetable, and hopefully much before then,” Kangas says.

Daily News Staff Writer Peter Sachs covers higher education. He can be reached at 773.362.5002, ext. 18, or peter [at] chitowndailynews [dot] org.